I used to think that classical Christian education was all about rigor and challenge–a time-tested method by which to best develop intelligent, logical minds.
The Christian piece came in either when I gave an especially difficult test and students needed an “I can do all things through Christ” kind of prayer or when I needed to remind students that we, of course, do our best on this test to “bring glory to God.” (I did make the occasional reference to the revelation of God’s character in the order and beauty of math and science, but I’ve only really begun to deeply understand the significance of that integration in the last few years.)
So students who had a natural aptitude for math and science loved me, particularly those who enjoyed a challenge.
However, those students who worked really hard but just never quite “got it” became acquainted with a new level of frustration, thanks to my classes. I felt bad for them; but hard work in life doesn’t guarantee success (just ask a farmer). Although I admired their efforts, my attitude toward them could best be described as pity. The way I saw it, my job was to keep the brightest students challenged. As for those working feverishly in their shadows, I just hoped that they would find a tutor who could bring them along.
But then there were the students who lacked above average aptitude and either didn’t bother working hard or exhibited very poor work habits (granted those cases were the extreme exception). I just wrote those students off completely. That was the just response, I thought, for their not taking my class seriously. I took their laziness personally, but retribution would come when they ended up with “the grade they deserved.”
Fortunately, not too long into my teaching career, God convicted me through the counsel of some very wise parents and the Gospel. If the Kingdom of Heaven is like a shepherd leaving 99 sheep behind to go search after the one that is lost, or like a woman with 10 coins who turns her house upside down when she loses just one of them, then I am going to have to change my conception of what it means to reflect the Gospel. I need to be willing to go after those students who might not be the best, who can’t seem to stay up with the rest of the flock.
So I resolved to do just that. Well, sort of. As it turns out (no surprise here), I fell short of what I think Christ intended by these parables. I started to pursue fervently those students in the second group–that is, those who lacked the above average aptitude but worked extremely hard. I adopted the credo: if you’ll give me all you’ve got, I’ll run along side you all the way. My new class mantra became, “All I want is your best. As long as you’re giving me your best, I am pleased.”
In other words, I went to bat for that second group of students because I came to value hard work in the absence of exceptional ability. Hard work is still something to be admired, praised, and sought after. So Jesus’ parables made sense for the hard working student. However, those students with less aptitude who refused to work hard or who were seldom organized or prepared for class–I still dismissed them. They weren’t lost sheep or lost coins, they were just, well, lost. Sure, I “loved them,” but pitiably so.
You see, a lost sheep is still a sheep. And sheep are fluffy and cute. And, to a shepherd, each one has tremendous value. Just like a coin.
Woa to my students who weren’t cuddly or shiny—who needed grace the most . . .
But last year God began a new work in me. Through His further refinement of my heart He revealed three truths to me:
1) Every child bears my Image.
2) You are only as good a teacher as your “worst” student thinks you are.
3) You need to learn to love grace as much as you love truth.
So this year I have set forth to pursue even the student who struggles to get organized or whose work ethic does not match my expectations. But because these descriptions have only ever applied to a small handful of students, I have found my new plan actually more difficult—not less—to put into consistent action. After all, isn’t it much easier to serve the overwhelming majority and ignore those on the fringe?
In fact, not too long into the school year, I acted dismissively toward a student who had failed to turn in a homework assignment and then forgot to come talk to me about it. Before I could stop myself, my own bad habits of impatience and quick judgment were once again controlling my response to someone who was in great need of grace. Although I would have never admitted in the moment, I am sure I treated that student as not worthy of my valuable time.
So God took the opportunity one Sunday morning to clarify for me the true meaning of Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. Enter the story of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus may have been a “wee little man,” but that is where any potential for endearment ends. A chief tax collector in Jericho, Zacchaeus got rich by taking his own cut of the oppressive taxes levied by the Roman government. Unlike the sheep or the coin, which had practical value to the shepherd and the coin owner, Zacchaeus would have been considered a hated scoundrel by everyone who walked with Jesus that day, and perhaps justifiably so.
So we might expect Jesus, who advocates for those who are given the short end of the stick, to take the side of the crowd when he encounters Zacchaeus peering down from the sycamore tree. I can imagine someone in the crowd saying to Jesus, “Hey, this is our chance! Tell Zacchaeus how wrong he is! Put him in his place!!” Or even, “Ignore that guy, Jesus, he has gotten rich off of our hard-earned money!”
But that of course is not what happens. Jesus not only invites Zacchaeus down from the tree, but also invites himself to be a guest in Zacchaeus’ home.
“So the people began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!’
The crowd cannot believe that Jesus didn’t choose someone more worthy to spend the evening with. In their economy, Jesus’ decision makes no sense. So Jesus has to remind them of Zacchaeus’ true identity: that this scoundrel, too, is “a son of Abraham.”
Do we seek out students based on their true identity (the Imago Dei) or based on their academic efforts or aptitude?
Let’s listen to the way the story of Zacchaeus ends, because these were the words that God used to open my eyes to a new reality. Jesus says:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Wait. So the “lost” aren’t just cuddly sheep and valuable coins after all; the lost are scoundrels! In fact, the beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus looks at the scoundrel and sees the sheep beneath.
This is very good news for those of us who are scoundrels. And, if we’re honest, isn’t that all of us?
The next day I looked at both myself and each one of my students differently, especially those students who need an extra measure of grace. In fact, I began to see myself more in those students than those who consistently live up to my expectations. I continue to pray that my actions follow my convictions. Holy Spirit help me. After all, I am weak. I am a scoundrel . . .
So what does it mean to be a classical Christian school? The longer that I’m on this journey, the more I believe that if we are going to reclaim the integrity of true Christian education, we must aim to reflect the Gospel in all aspects of our teaching. For me that means I have to chase after not only the sheep, but the “scoundrels” as well. In other words, I have to chase after the students who are a lot like me.