A radical education

During an online discussion in the winter Distinctives class (that I teach) this past winter, one of the students, Brian VanderHaak, Headmaster at Christian Academy of Japan, shared with the rest of the class what he had delivered as a graduation speech about the nature of Christian education. I contemplated editing for length, but think that it needs to stand as a coherent message. Although longer than the usual blog post, it is very worthwhile reading. Brian captures well the kinds of things we should be emphasizing with our students – a distinctively different education!

To the graduation class of 2003:

By now you have figured out that life is more complicated than the pat answers you playfully decided in 10th grade answered every question in life (and in my class): God, Jesus, and the other one I won’t bring up here because I would have to spend a lot of time explaining it to those not in the loop.

As children you eventually reached a point where these simple answers were no longer acceptable for any question. A teacher may have asked: “Who was in the belly of the whale?” and in your excitement you’d wave your hand. The teacher would call on you and you would answer innocently: “God.” “Well yes,” the teacher would say reassuringly, “that is true because God is everywhere… but who else was in the belly of the whale?” “Jesus?” you would venture. “Well yes, Jesus is God and God is everywhere, but who else is in the belly of the whale?” And so on. It didn’t work as well when you got older and the questions became something more like “Who espoused the doctrine of election and what does it mean?”

Now, we at WCA have done a pretty good job of educating you in and about that increasingly complicated world you encountered:

You can do intricate math equations.
You can dissect and identify amphibian innards.
Hopefully (because it’s my fault if you can’t) you can analyze literature and history to identify the text, sub text and find all the beauty and baggage that comes between the lines.
You know the books of the Bible and can discuss the history of the church.
You can do this stuff in a couple of languages and maybe even identify a few Latin phrases: “Hey, that’s a Latin phrase!” you might say some day. “I took Latin at WCA… I don’t have a clue what it says, but that’s Latin all right.”
But I think we may have failed to teach you something. Something very important. Something essential. It wasn’t intentional, but it was, with the clarity of hindsight, a critical mistake. In spite of this though I think, I pray, I see some evidence, that it was neither a fatal nor hopeless omission.

When your parents brought you to the doors at 1820 Franwall Ave, many, probably all, of them were nervous, even scared. They were scared you might get bumps, scrapes, and bruises – and terrified that you might be responsible for someone else’s bumps, scrapes and bruises. They were concerned you might get your feelings hurt – which can leave a bigger scar than any cut. It is very difficult for a parent to endure their baby (at any age) suffering an injustice or slight. We might say tough it out, let it slide, be cool, but inside we relive over and over every emotional trauma we felt at your age. To be a teacher and a covenant parent is to die a thousand deaths while a school full of children, either maliciously or cluelessly tear each other down right in front of us.

And as they dropped you off at WCA’s front door they worried along with us:

That you wouldn’t learn enough to be successful in life, or that you might learn too much about something we didn’t want you to know anything about and you might become successful at that.

That you might not fit in, or that you might fit in too well.

That you might soil your pants or throw up on the teacher’s shoes.

That you might end up in the principal’s office for garnering too much attention or, worse yet, might end up not being noticed at all.

But those fears were misplaced. We worried about the wrong things. When your parents walked hand in hand with you down to that first class, or later drug you out of bed and pushed you out of the car on this end, they should have been scared to death. They should have lain awake nights worried. They should have been terrified that we at WCA, we Christian schoolteachers and covenant parents, would do our job. You see, the most important part of our job, the very essence of why we are here, what we need to be struggling with constantly in addition to how to properly place you in the right math class or what college we can get you into is this: Our calling is to teach you that Christianity is a radical religion. A radical religion. We have prepared you to claim your place in the world – but I’m concerned we haven’t done enough to prepare you not to be of this world.

Now, I apologize for my sin of omission, because the good Lord knows we spent enough time together, so I had plenty of opportunity. And it wasn’t for lack of caring or that I didn’t think it was important. Perhaps it is the term that throws us off. We mistakenly attach the term radical exclusively to liberal extremists or conservative fundamentalists of any religion.

Or perhaps we are thrown by the nature of radicalism – its level of commitment, the counter-cultic nature it implies, and the political and social fanaticism that often accompanies it. But that is wrong.

Mainstream Christianity is the most radical thing in the world!

You think it is radical to put on a vest full of explosives and try to take out as many people as you can? You think it is radical to riot or fly a plane into a building? That’s nothing. That’s expected. That’s human. Return hate with hate? Return injustice with injustice? Be oppressed and lash out? That’s standard operating procedure for fallen man. You want radical?. You want extreme, on the edge, set the world on its ear radicalism? Turn the other cheek.

I am unimpressed and not surprised when someone lashes out. I’m dazzled, awed, mystified (though I shouldn’t be) when someone returns hatred with love. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you shoot at him or her? Kid’s stuff. Someone disses you and you lash out with tongue or fists? Child’s play. You want to play with the truly tough crowd? Those that have what it takes to do the unexpected?

Are you ready for that?
Did we prepare you for that?

I once read about a man whose teenage daughter had been brutally raped and murdered – and God called on him to forgive the monster that did it – which he did – and he then engaged in years of praying for this man’s conversion. Can you imagine? This man had held his baby girl in his arms, like so many fathers here tonight, and whispered to his daughter that he would always be there for her and protect her. He admitted that humanly it wasn’t possible to for him to do, but God had given him the strength. To accept that and act on it? That’s radical.

But those are extreme situations. Perhaps one of the reasons we are so scared of the radical nature of Christianity is that we put it in context of extreme lifestyles or behaviors or situations.

Some of you might indeed be called to some form of radical poverty. To sacrifice all those material things that fascinate and bind you: nice homes, nice clothes, nice cars, really good desserts, etc. And that will be radical, to go in the face of a lifetime of conditioning by the media and the hopes and dreams of those around you. Because I’ll tell you that I hope and pray none of you ever knows want or need, even in the service of the Lord. It’s part of our parental instinct to want you comfortable and cared for. But to give that up? To place yourself at risk financially? That is radical and we all recognize it as such.

And some of you might be called to dangerous professions – that is also radical. Agur Adams, I was told by his mother (through gritted teeth as I remember), considers Navy Seal training to be a calling. As long as there is evil in the world God will call Christians to those dangerous professions. It is certainly radical for a well-educated, capable individual with incredible potential to put their biological life on the line for what they believe.

Yes, there are many obviously radical Christian callings that God may direct at some of you. But most of you will assume your place in the middle class, or better, and at first glance radical will seem as remote and distant and disconnected to your life as the bizarre setting of The Heart of Darkness.

But you want radical with a capital R? You want to know what it is like to be a Christian today? And I submit to you that there is no such thing as a Radical Christian – the phrase is redundant – to live as a Christian as taught in the Bible is to be radical. You want to be that Radical?

Dedicate your life to radical parenting. Raise Godly Christian children in a world intent on controlling their minds, bodies and wallets.

You want to be Radical? Be talking to fellow workers, be talking to your bosses, and make a stand when something unethical is considered.

You want to be Radical? Be hanging out with friends and challenge their lifestyle choices.

You want to be Radical? Intervene when someone you barely know says something racially inappropriate.

You want to be Radical? In a world that claims that he or she with the most toys when they die wins, Radical is accepting that nothing you have is yours – it all belongs to God.

A saying I hate but I hear often is, “On their death bed, no one wishes they had spent more time at work.” How about living a life where you hold every second as belonging to God – a life of purpose and dedication and hard work? Somehow that too has become radical.

You want to be radical? Are you ready to accept the fact that you are required to be Radical? In a world that says that cool is king, that emotion is weakness, live like Christ. Christ showed righteous anger, Christ cried out to God the Father, Christ loves the unlovable, Jesus wept.

When I had many of you in 7th grade you would scramble to participate in class. Your hands would flail around while you called out, “ooh ooh ooh” trying to get my attention. In 8th grade that started to change, but there were still moments of passion. By 10th grade it was slouch and grouch many days. I would glance up and see that vacant stare — not defiant — just the “I’m too cool to look interested” look. This look, by the way, I’m convinced is part of what drives many people out of teaching. This look that I’ve learned from experience has little to do with what is going on inside.

But God has given you each a set of wonderful talents. He has also given you a gift that is unique in creation – the ability to reason. And with these talents comes obligations. Be passionate about your gifts – don’t let cool, or concern about the perceived value of what you have to say, or let others reactions keep you from using those talents. To speak out or act out in spite of your human and fallen desire to do just the opposite: that’s Radical.

It is not radical to live in a convent or behind a wall – that’s the safe route. It is a wonderful calling to be involved in full time ministry like teaching or preaching or mission work. And the sacrifices involved do require a radical commitment. But you want Radical?

Try being a light to the world every day while selling real estate

Try being a light to world on a construction crew

Making movies

Being an independent businesswoman

Climbing to the top

Going to school

Try keeping that light out from under a bushel while seeking pleasure.

Now, pleasure is not forbidden to us as Christians – but worshiping pleasure is. Radical is ignoring what the world says about fun, pleasure, and fulfillment and, instead, looking to the Bible. You want a Radical lifestyle? Get used to looking there first.

Do you remember this one? A student who is no longer with us (and that we miss) challenged me in class one day while we were talking about our call to evangelize. She said, “ When I’m at the club, getting my freak on, I have no right to get in my friends’ faces and preach to them.” No right? How about obligation?

I have some regrets in my life: like crashing my freshly painted van rummaging around on the floor for a Led Zeppelin 8 track to put in the tape deck. But the biggest regrets I have are lost opportunities to witness. Not that God needed my help, but God desired it, He required it, and I blew it. It is Radical to be ready and willing to step up to the plate anytime, anywhere, every time.

Everything about our post-modern/relativist society (and this is the last time you have to hear me use those terms) screams out to be accepting. You believe what you want to, I do my thing; I’m ok, you’re ok. Radical is to realize that your neighbor might be the nicest person alive, better than you in many regards, generous, a good parent, have a perfect lawn, and might be damned to hell as an unbeliever. It makes us uncomfortable to confront that reality as well as the reality that we have a role to play here. To accept that is radical.

It is also Radical to engage in evangelism without the alienation. What about loving non-believers every day, including the ones that make us uncomfortable – the ones whose lifestyles or personalities make us want to hold them at arms length? Radical is not letting your prejudices get the better of you. We are not called to condemn as much as to be God’s instrument for transformation.

I’m loath to stop – like somehow I can make up for the lost opportunities we had in the classroom to talk about the Radical nature of Christianity. But I’m hopeful that you’ll get there and that you do understand. I see signs that, as a group, you are well on your way:

Some of your senior papers dealt with grappling with issues of lifestyle and commitment.

We had a discussion in class recently about whether racism would diminish and one of you asked: “What can we do?” Not sullenly or hopelessly but – “But what can WE do?” Ready to accept the challenge.

One of you actually said in class last week — in response to a tease from another during a report on capitalism — that there was more to life, and to you, than cars. I see so many hopeful signs.

You see, Radical isn’t a mindset – it’s action – it’s the way you choose to live your life. I’m going to ask you to pray with me in a moment. Know that I, and these other covenant parents and educators have committed ourselves to a lifetime of carrying you in prayer. Of praying for you. But I can’t do this one for you. No one can.

Six years ago our pastor in Washington State, during a series of sermons on prayer, called on us as individuals to pray what he called “the scary prayer.” He could just have well called it “the Radical prayer.” He challenged us to, for once, not call on God to bless our jobs or our families or to let us know if something specific in our lives was a good choice (like what college we chose). But to pray: simply and humbly: God – your will be done in my life. And then stop and listen for the answer.

But I warn you, don’t be naïve. Don’t believe you can control the process. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, said: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God… We must not… assume that our schedule is our own to manage – but allow it to be arranged by God.” Not long after he wrote this he was hung by the Nazis in a concentration camp. This was his punishment for resisting their policies and standing up against the persecution of the Jews.

Up to that point, that sermon, I had spent my entire life praying something like:

Lord, if this business is what you want me to do, then bless it.

Lord, if this house is what you want us to build, then make it possible.

Lord, if this is the girl I’m supposed to marry, then make it so she doesn’t hang up on me, again.

Basically, I lived my life as I saw fit, and challenged God to open doors and windows as He saw fit. After this sermon Bette and I prayed this Radical prayer: We had just finished building a new house we had spent years designing and dreaming about. I had just gone back to school to get my teaching credentials, and we had plotted our career course out to teach in the local schools. We were surrounded by friends and family. My mom finally had all of her children return to the area, and we were living within a few miles of her. Bette’s parents had moved from Chicago to be closer to their grandkids, my children. Our lives were well planned and in order.

And we prayed: “God, do what you will with our lives. Amen.” A month later we were on a plane to interview for jobs in Silver Spring, Maryland, at a place we had never heard of, because of an ad in The Banner, our church magazine, that Bette had noticed by chance (or so we thought). An ad I didn’t even want to respond to. After the interview they offered us these jobs, and we said no repeatedly. Then God reminded us of our prayer. Two weeks after that we were in a U-haul driving across country. Two weeks to get ready for our lives to change forever and all because of a one-sentence prayer!

We tell people there are scratch marks all the way across the country on interstate 90. But the reality is that Radical does not mean miserable. This is why I think maybe we worry too much about the Radical thing rather than accepting it. WCA is where God has wanted us and He, in turn, has made our experience here rewarding, deeply textured, a blessing to us personally and spiritually. He did that by giving us you.

If you dare, 2003 graduates of WCA, pray quietly along with me these scary, radical words that are so familiar we do not realize how powerful, how live changing they are. Let’s pray: Here I am Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. Where you lead me, I will follow. Amen.

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2 Comments

Filed under Biblical worldview, distinctively Christian, mission development, mission measurement, student outcomes

2 responses to “A radical education

  1. Andrew

    Thank you for posting this. It’s extremely encouraging and convicting all at the same time.

  2. J Watson

    Thank you!

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