Text of Shorter College chapel message from April 10th. Many, many thanks to David Roland and Andy McKenzie for support, pre-reading, and sounding-board type takes. All bible quotations are NIV.
There’s a lot of topics that ran through my head as I was dealing with the prospect of giving a message here. What has sat front and center for the past couple of weeks has been some kind of take on being a Christian and doing science, since there’s a little bit of uniqueness I have to offer there. And there’s a lot I could say about the craft of teaching in the context of Christianity as well.
One of the things that I keep in my teaching portfolio is a philosophy of Christian education that I wrote when I was first considering applying for a position at Shorter, and I was trying to figure out why in the world I might want a job at a Christian college in the first place. For whatever reason, I made the decision to build the statement around Matthew 22:37-40, which is Jesus’ familiar statement of the Law. You know it well: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” My argument went something like this: Those of us in academia who claim the name of Jesus Christ need to be more diligent in loving God with our minds, because whatever gifts we have received to understand humanity and understand nature come from God. And, whatever we might decide “Christian education” is, Christian education must somehow involve demonstrating love to the students who come to learn from us. They must, in some fashion, become our neighbors.
I’ve been going back over that statement, thinking that, in all honesty, it’s a bit lame, and I could probably do a bit better with it, and dig a bit deeper theologically. I don’t know if all of my faculty peers are like that, but I am.
Over the end of the last week, though, this message wrote itself.
The text of Scripture that I’ve come back to, both in my quiet times (as rare as they’ve been lately) and in my preparation for today, has been 1 John 3:11-23, which contains so many of the themes of John’s teaching during the later stages of his life. John writes:
This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
Now, hold on to that text for a moment while I go over my Good Friday.
My pastor at Chapel Hill United Methodist keeps a blog. (He dubs himself Chill Pastor. It’s a long story.) He keeps it pretty well tied in to what he’s talking about in church, with a few pop culture observations as well; he loves to tie in pop songs, and music videos in particular, to his teaching. (After all, we are the MTV generation.) And his wife and daughter have started up their own blogs as well, to put down random thoughts here and there. I’ve dubbed them BlogFamily.
On Friday, while I was trying to get some odd work done in what should have been the peace of no-students-around-day, I came across this post from Bryan’s wife Paige. It started like this:
“Destiny, a friend of my daughter, Laine, committed suicide last night…”
I can’t get used to reading words like that. I just can’t. There’s no way. Ever since I was old enough to realize what suicide was I haven’t been able to understand what exactly puts somebody in a place where they are so desperate to just check out of life and shatter everybody around them.
Reading the words of Paige’s post, and Laine’s after that, didn’t get any easier. They were laden in grief, and they were angry. They were tales of rumors, of taunts, of “good kids” showing aggression towards somebody who wasn’t like them – pretty much every horror story I’ve ever imagined about girls in middle school and high school. And that haunts me more than a little bit.
But something else haunts me as well. With graduation around the corner, it’s coming up on one year since we learned that Shadow Robinson had taken her own life. That was the first time a student of mine had committed suicide, and given Shadow’s outgoing personality, bright face and marvelous laugh, I never saw it coming. Perhaps I should have learned to see deeper than the surface with her, or perhaps if I had tried I wouldn’t have been allowed in. I’ll never know.
All I know is, when Shadow committed suicide, those nice, trite words about demonstrating love to my students and not treating them as soulless automatons that sit in my teaching philosophy rang very hollow. I can’t imagine how many people who had responsibility for Destiny’s education are dealing with the same kinds of feelings of guilt and question of “what if…?” right now.
So John’s challenge hits hard. Verses 14 and 15 “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” When we get around to thinking that the New Testament is full of grace, that the New Testament lets us off the hook if we’ll just try to live a half-decent life and Jesus is just some band-aid to patch together our brokenness, we come across writing like that and we’re reminded that Jesus’ message is hard. John had no understanding for somebody who demonstrated hate, even someone who saw themselves as a “good person.” The challenge is to demonstrate that we are worthy of Christ’s example, by giving of ourselves completely to our neighbors – to the point where we “lay down our lives for our brothers.”
And we do that because Christ laid down his life for us – and if we truly believe that the resurrection really happened, then there’s all kinds of power that God has made evident to us. Surely he’d lend us a little bit of that power for us to be able to overcome the human pettiness we have and be able to take this moment and love our neighbors in it, wouldn’t he?
If this is true, then why do I have so much trouble showing that kind of love? “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
Is my conscience bothering me? I need to love more. And I don’t need to just run my mouth about loving more. I don’t need to tell somebody that I love them and then go on as if nothing is different. I need to change. I need to give up of my time. I need to shut down my concern with my position, my income, my reputation, and give that time to my neighbor.
It’s pointless to dwell on what has happened in the past, and why it happened, because we have one another now, and the single best weapon we have against our consciences flaring up on us is to take advantage of this time and love now. Can I say I’ve loved the people around me on this campus in a way to shut down my conscience, and to rest in confidence that God is pleased with how I’ve treated others? Not really. Lord, PLEASE forgive me. I repent. But what does it mean to repent? It means I’m living different now – it means I have to live different now. I move forward and I love now.
I wrote four years ago, somewhat absent-mindedly, this for that philosophy of education I was talking about earlier: “Christian education, however we define it, must be terribly incomplete without demonstrating love to the students who come to learn from us. We avoid lording our academic position over our students and making unreasonable demands or unfair assessments of them. We treat our students not as soulless automatons whose worth is determined by how well they do or don’t complete their work, but as people starting a path that we completed not so long ago, who are struggling with many of the same things we struggled with as students.”
And if you are one of my students, to be true to my obligations that I’ve made to God, I really owe you nothing less than that.
Well, maybe it wasn’t so lame.
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”
The ancient writer Jerome tells a story about John, towards the end of his life. John was frail enough that he had helpers to carry him into the synagogues, where believers were gathering to hear this teaching of one of the patriarchs. And all the teaching John would do would be this: “Love one another. Love one another. Love one another.” And a few people would get annoyed at this – and I can imagine I would too. After all, this guy was one of the twelve who spent his time with Jesus, and here he is, old and senile, just muttering “Love one another.” But when John was challenged on this – “Teacher, don’t you have anything else for us?” – John had only this to say:
“What else is there? If only love is done, it is enough.”