I hope you had some opportunity for rest during this tumultuous summer. Between COVID spikes, race conflict and debates both nationally and here in Tyler, presidential campaign craziness, and Supreme Court activity, it wasn’t a summer that lent itself well to peace and relaxation. But God is good about giving us comfort and peace, He’s an eye in the storm, and I hope you were able to find moments of rest in the maelstrom.
At Grace, our school theme this year is “love lavishly.” And, I am so very grateful the Lord gave us this particular theme in this particular year, and I hope it can be of use to you, too. As always, He knows just what we need. It’s based on 1 John 3:1, but further fleshed out by subsequent verses:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another…14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.
16 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 and sisters. 17 … 23 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 passage ends with loving others, but it begins with how the Father loves us, and lavishes love upon us. What activates our love for other people, what emboldens and empowers that love, is realizing that God loves us, and the depth, the breadth, and the extravagance of His love.
Understanding the depth of God’s love for us compels us to love lavishly, and it is why I never really considered that we would not physically be in school this fall. It never really seemed to me a viable option. Because being in school is what love requires: we needed to be in school. I think it is so important that “teaching Jesus,” our school’s purpose statement, means we always remember that we see not as man sees: we see through the eyes of the Holy Spirit given to us as a gift through the blood of our older brother Jesus, and the new life that comes through Him. It is a gift that cost God everything.
By being His, and by receiving that gift, we have the great gift of seeing education, those we educate, and even ourselves, through a completely different lens, one untainted by the wisdom of the world. We just have to look clearly enough. And, one of the reasons Christ urges us to “fear not’ is because fear keeps us from seeing clearly- it occludes, obscures, and causes us not to see through the eyes of the Spirit, but of our old person, the dead one; in other words, the way the world sees.
I know when we see other school districts doing things like system-wide extended virtual learning throughout a whole region for protracted periods of time, the fear in the culture around us, fear our ancient foe uses and has used for millennia, might be telling us, “maybe we should be doing that, too.” In some cases, the local law forces us to do these things, but even when it does not, we might be likewise tempted.
But we should not give in. The eyes of the Spirit, those which illumine God’s Word for us, tell us that we as teachers and administrators and the kids under our care are holistic beings, created by God as physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and intellectual creatures. At my school, we call those the aspects of the learner, and they are all the ways- completely, wholly, and in integrated fashion- God has created us to be and to mirror who He is. All of these ways are how He’s created us to learn. As educators, we’ve been charged by God to teach our students in all those ways. It is the great calling of God upon our lives as educators, our collective mission as brothers and sisters joined in this God-breathed endeavor.
If there is anything last semester’s nation-wide experiment in virtual education taught us, it is that it is very difficult, if not impossible for children to be educated virtually as holistic image bearers of God for long periods of time. Christian schools on the whole did a very good job of virtual learning last semester- we did it as well as anyone could have under the circumstances, and I am so proud of how we responded as a movement, by God’s grace. Yet, as I’ve reflected on last semester, and, if we are honest, we only gave our students about 60-70 percent of what they needed, at best. You have probably come to that realization, as well. It was not because of lack of effort or expertise, but because one cannot reach all the aspects of the learner, the physical, and the social, and the emotional, and even the mental, completely, through a Google Meet or Zoom call.
And, so, in that context, education becomes a transactional endeavor, not a transformational one. Education in a Christian school, which is discipleship, is life-on-life: in the context of holistic, loving relationship. It is supposed to be transformational. Thank God last year we had already spent six months building relationships with our students that we could then leverage, or virtual learning would have probably been an utter disaster– as it threatens to be if we begin our relationship with our students at the beginning of the year that way.
First John 3:1 reminds us, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” You are indeed loved by our Father. I was listening to a sermon by Tim Keller the other day, in which Dr. Keller observed that fear is the most primal emotion. The minute we are born, we are born crying. We cry not because of grief or sadness, Dr. Keller observes, but because of fear, of being outside our protective cocoon, cast into a loud, cold world. Fear can be a good thing, when it’s focused; it can help us survive. It gets us out of the way of the onrushing car, which is why God gave it to us. Jesus even felt fear, in the garden the night before He died, which was absolutely normal and good. But, unfocused, unresolved, sustained fear, over a long period of time, anxious, undirected fear, a kind of existential dread, eats away our insides and distracts us from who God has called us to be and what He has called us to do.
Every day since we came out of that protective cocoon, the temptation towards generalized, unfocused fear surrounds us. Today, in the COVID-fueled world, media traffics in fear. Fear sells, and so it is the undercurrent of every story. Fear is apolitical- it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching MSNBC or Fox, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, fear is an equal opportunity victimizer. It is always there. When death is the end of the road, when this life is all there is, as it is in our increasingly-secularized culture, one is going to hang onto life with white knuckles, with everything one has. Safety, and protecting oneself, threatens to extend from simply a wise practice, to being one’s god, that which consumes one’s time, energy, and focus. As long as we subject ourselves to this world and its messages, we are as subject to the temptation as anyone. It does not have to be COVID that tempts. Even if that illness does not scare you at all, there are plenty of other suitors available to walk you to the altar of fear: fear of change, fear that you will have to alter your practices as a teacher or leader, fear of future viability, fear of loss of what was, whether it was worth keeping or not. Fear is all around us.
The good news is that God can honestly and in good faith say to us, “don’t fear,” meaning, do not live in that state of anxious, continuous, existential dread. Do not be captivated or enslaved by fear, Because, as He tells us through John in 1 John 4:18. “There is no fear in love: perfect love casts out fear.” And, what is this perfect love? “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”
While fear might be the most primal emotion, love is the greatest and most powerful. Love conquers fear; it casts it out. When your baby was screaming at birth from primal fear, what comforted him or her? Being enveloped in pure, complete, sacrificial love. Love of which you never knew you were capable: God-like love.
Real love always has people or groups of people as its object. We may love ice cream, classic rock, or the Crimson Tide, but not really. You just like them a lot. You love your parents, and your husband or wife. You love your children, and you love your students. You can’t always explain why you love these people; God gives you this love. God gives you love even for the stinkers in your class or your school; maybe especially for them. God gives you a passion for people.
Perfect love is sacrifice. You also know from experience that love is never measured by what you get from it, but by what you’re willing to give up. It doesn’t really matter whether these people you love you back. You certainly want them to love you, but it does not change your love. Your children and your students will never, ever love you as much as you love them, and in your gut, you know that, and you do not care. You would still do anything for them.
Love is the most amazing, pure way we mirror God, and God gives us this love to show us a glimpse of how much He loves us. Even when we’re stinkers. Even when we will never love Him as much as He loves us, because we are not capable of that much love. And, He loves us so much that He gave up the most important relationship in His life for us, so that we could be with Him forever, as His sons and daughters. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
How deep the Father’s love for us?
How vast beyond all measure,
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss –
The Father turns His face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.
What is our response to this extravagant love? This love beyond all measure? This love that tells you no matter who you are or what you do or what you have or have not accomplished, what you have or have not done, it really does not matter, because by His blood you are His beloved in whom He is well pleased? What is our response to these things? 11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters,[b] if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.
And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
We are loved with perfect love, love that casts out fear. We are to love our brothers and sisters, and to lay down our lives for them.
How to love each other in a world of epidemics is nothing new for God’s people. It is really only in the modern world, with access to advancements in medicine and knowledge of how disease works, that it seems new. But, societies as a whole, and Christians specifically, have been dealing with pandemics for millennia. As Lyman Stone says in an article in Christianity Today, “The Christian ethic in a time of plague considers that our own life must always be regarded as less important than that of our neighbor.”[ii]
Christians made a name for themselves in the Roman Empire. Historian Rodney Stark notes that the Antonine plague of the 2d century, which killed the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, led to the spread of Christianity, as the rest of society saw how Christians cared for the sick and offered an alternative view whereby plagues weren’t the work of angry gods but the product of a broken, fallen world. In the Plague of Cyprian in the 3rd century, probably a form of Ebola, the bishop Dionysius reported that Christians, “heedless of danger…took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.” Stark observes that death rates in cities with Christian communities were half that in other cities.[iii]
In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused to flee the city, and stayed and ministered to the sick. His refusal to leave cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. In his tract, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”, he argued it is appropriate Christians die at their posts. Christian doctors must remain at their hospitals, Christian governors have to stay in their districts, Christian pastors have to stay in their pulpits (and, by extension, Christian teachers should stay in their classrooms). The plague does not dissolve our duties: it turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die. Luther did note, however, even when people understood disease less than now, that obeying quarantine orders, fumigating one’s house, and other healthy practices were wise and avoided endangering others through negligence, even in the process of serving them.[iv]
This virus we face now is far from the death sentence our early forbears in the Church faced as they loved and cared for those around them. It is just not, statistically speaking, that kind of thing, for which we can be grateful. We also have so much more technology, medical knowledge, and other resources available to us than they ever did. Yet, there’s no question that stepping back into school requires some degree of moral courage. To be honest, it probably requires more courage in light of heightened media concern and Internet shaming than actual, statistical risk, but it requires courage, nonetheless. And, great courage is always motivated by extravagant, lavish love.
I am convicted that one of the reasons for the anxiety and the failure to thrive of our churches, our people, and our nation is that fear has driven us out of physical community with each other. We were created to need it, and to thrive and flourish when we had it. The Body cannot operate without it.
In the article I cited earlier by Lyman Stone, written in March before we and our churches were ordered into quarantine, he warned of the ills of prolonged separation
The coronavirus leaves over 99% of its victims still breathing. But it leaves virtually every member of society afraid, anxious, isolated, alone, and wondering if anyone would even notice if they’re gone. In an increasingly atomized society, the coronavirus could rapidly mutate into an epidemic of despair…bereft of work, school, public gatherings, sports, and hobbies, or even the outside world at all, humans do poorly. We need the moral and mental support of communities to be the decent people we all aspire to be.
I think Stone’s words were prophetic, and missing out on the fruits of membership in these communities means we have lost something. We are all feeling it.
Community is like a muscle. It has to be exercised or it atrophies. Over the past few months that is what has happened, and it has led to fear, anxiety, depression, and overall lack of well-being. God’s people need to be back in community, to be together, to establish those rhythms and patterns and liturgies of life that train our hearts and affections, to love each other and make us whole again.
That all begins by getting kids back in school, real school, which, in turn, gets families and communities back in that rhythm, as well. It is considerably healthier for all of us, because it comports with how God created us, and it is way more necessary than what we now know about the risk of this virus.
There is nothing scriptural about being stupid for Jesus, or as Luther says, “to tempt God.” When my youngest child had COVID this summer, rather than moving into my family’s lake house so I could keep working, I was tempted to just hang out with my daughter, contract the illness, and get over it. But, that’s not wise, and not what God calls me to do. So, we will all be smart and take reasonable precautions, and follow guidelines and operate as wise schools. But we should let perfect love cast out fear. The Father’s love for us, and our love for our children call us to that. If so, this will be another great moment for Christian schooling, and it will be a great year.
[i] Townend, Stuart. How Deep the Father’s Love for Us? [ii] Stone, Lyman. “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years.” Christianity Today. (March 13, 2020), https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/ [iii] Stark, Rodney (1996). The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press. [iv] Luther, Martin. “Martin Luther: Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Reprinted in Christianity Today. (May 19, 2020), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/may-web-only/martin-luther-plague-pandemic-coronavirus-covid-flee-letter.html
Jay Ferguson, J.D., PhD is the Head of School of Grace Community School in Tyler, Texas. Jay is in his 16th year as head of Grace. Since that time, Jay has worked to build a flourishing culture at Grace, a vibrant educational community that has been awarded Blue Ribbon Exemplary status by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 and 2017. He is an adjunct professor at Covenant College, Gordon College, and Dallas Baptist University, and recently served on the adjunct faculties of the Van Lunen Center at Calvin College and at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University. Jay is past President of the Board of the Texas Private School Association, former Chair of the Board of the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability, and is Chair-Elect of the executive board of the Association of Christian Schools International. Jay and his wife, Ashley, have three daughters: Emma, Annie, and Ellen. He has taught them to love Jesus and football, in that order, which he considers his gift to future sons-in-law, Lord willing.