Ah, the first few days of a new school year. I don’t know
about you but when I was a kid I used to look forward to the first day of
school—new books, new teachers, new friends, new opportunities to learn.
I just got back from a month of cramming in classes and
writing on my doctorate, which leaves me a little less than excited about
school, but I’m also grateful for the additional education. The more I learn,
the more I realize I don’t know.
When I think about my education, however, one of the things
I’ve come to realize is that while the information we learn is important, the
teachers who deliver that information are even more important. I think the old
adage is true—more is caught than taught, thus teachers are really the
curriculum that students first encounter from the time they are born and begin
to grow. It’s our teachers, more than the information they bring, that provide
our real education.
I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers which challenges our long-held
assumptions about what makes a person successful. When we talk about successful
people, says Gladwell, “We want to know what they’re like—what kind of
personalities they have, or how intelligent they are, or what kind of lifestyles
they have, or what special talents they may have been born with. And we assume
that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached
the top…In the autobiographies published every year by the
billionaire/entrepreneur/rock star/celebrity, the story line is always the
same: our hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit
and talent fights his way to greatness.”
But those assumptions are wrong, according to Gladwell. In
fact, he says, “People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to
parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they
did it all themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of
hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that
allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others
cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong
to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our
achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what
successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are
from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
To put it another way, Gladwell is saying that it is the
people and circumstances present in our lives that make a difference in who we
might become. The messages we receive from an early age can shape us for the
rest of our lives.
As I was getting ready to come home from school, I was
thinking about this and thinking about all the teachers in my life who helped
to shape me into the person I have become—people that I am thankful for every
Jean Shaffer, my first grade teacher, who realized that I had
an unusual passion for reading and kept giving me more challenging books to
read and explore. I think of her when I look at all the books in my library.
Barb McElhatten, my fifth grade Sunday School teacher,
grounded me in Christian faith with her creative lessons and her constant
encouragement. Mrs. M’s kids had already gone off to college and careers, but
she kept teaching fifth graders because she loved Christ and loved helping
young minds learn to love the Scriptures.
Mike Formeck, my band instructor all through middle and high
school, was always fun to be around and challenged me as a musician to keep
getting better. When my home life was in chaos during those high school years,
Mike always kept tabs on how I was doing and let me hang out in his office when
I needed to talk. He also gave me my first real leadership position, appointing
me as captain of the drum line when I was a junior. I was privileged to be part
of the alumni team that set up his retirement party last year.
Strange to say it, but my Army drill sergeant, Sgt. Smith,
was another great teacher. He pushed me to my absolute limits, but once I got
there I found I could do a little more. He had steely eyes, was a world class cusser,
and had a tendency to put the brim of his campaign hat right on your forehead
when chewing you out, but I learned from him not only how to be a soldier, but
also that I could do anything if I set my mind to it and refused to quit.
In college, Dr. Wayne Smith became my mentor and fueled my
love for history and for writing. Prof Smith was a tough professor and most
students at IUP didn’t like to have him for the required history course, but as
a history major I loved the way he challenged me and pushed me to go deeper in
learning and research. I didn’t know that I would become a pastor when I worked
with him, but I attribute my ability and passion as a writer and biblical
historian to him.
At Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Don Joy helped me unpack
the baggage from my past, while Dr. Mary Fisher opened my eyes to reading the
Bible in new ways.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. You probably
have a similar list of teachers in your own life who helped you become the
person you are. I would attest that Gladwell is right—none of us gets to where
we are strictly on our own (talk about your favorite teacher to a neighbor).
Teachers are vitally important, and not primarily because of
the information they impart. Interestingly, I can remember very little of the
content of the instruction of any of the teachers I’ve mentioned. The specific
lecture, the lesson plan, the questions on the test or the essay—none of that
is what seems to have mattered in the end.
What did matter to me—and what I think matters in any
teaching relationship—is character as much as content. The words used to teach
us information can also define us for a lifetime. If we receive words of
encouragement, hope, and love, we have the opportunity to grow into those
words. If, on the other hand, we receive words of scorn, derision, and hopelessness,
we will grow into those as well.
“Not many of you should teach,” says James, because teachers
will be judged by God with greater strictness because their words can make or
break their students. “The tongue is a fire,” he goes on to say, because it can
either purge us or destroy us. Words matter.
To understand James’ viewpoint here, we first need to look
at how the cultures of the first-century world viewed speech in general. Whereas
we’re constantly bombarded by words and idle speech every day in the form of
gossip, advertising and the white noise of a technological society, all
cultures of the first century, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, agreed that words
and speech contained both power and peril in ample supply. From the wisdom
literature of Egypt to the writings of Plutarch and Seneca to the wisdom
traditions in the Bible, ancient sages believed that silence was better
than speech, that listening and not speaking was the pathway to wisdom and
that all human speech should be guarded, never expressing rage or envy. A verse
from the Apocrypha sums up this view nicely: “Honor and dishonor come from
speaking, and the tongues of mortals may be their downfall” (Sirach 5:15). The
biblical book of Proverbs is full of similar sentiments.
James employs a series of metaphors to indicate just how
dangerous even a little bit of indiscreet speech can be. The tongue is a small
part of the body, says James, but like the rudder on a ship or a bridle on a
horse, the tongue can steer us either to the path of wisdom or toward
destruction (3:1-5). It takes only a spark — a misplaced, unkind or untrue word
— to burn down a community that has been nurtured and established like an
old-growth forest (vv. 5-6). The tongue’s “deadly poison” is always just a word
or two away from infecting a whole group (v. 8). The power of words to both
bless and curse is a power not to be taken lightly, particularly when our words
are directed at God and, more precisely, at people who are created in God’s
image (v. 9).
But James also recognized that there was a positive use for the tongue, and
that is as a conduit for God’s own wisdom. “Who is wise and understanding among
you?” he asked. “Show by your good life that your good works are done with
gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13). Our speech is merely the product of what’s
inside us. If we are filled with the wisdom and Spirit of God “from above,”
then our speech will reflect that. That wisdom is “pure, then peaceable,
gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of
partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17). If, however, our speech is peppered with
“envy and selfish ambition,” then that is evidence that our deeper motivation
is “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (v. 15).
To put it another way, before we share anything with anyone we have to listen
to the inner voice. Before we use our audible voice, we should ask ourselves,
“Is what I’m about to share here coming from a desire to build up the person
I’m speaking with and share God’s wisdom, or am I reciting from the negative
scripts I might have been taught by someone else?”
I was down in Antlers Park in Colorado Springs last Sunday
evening serving dinner to homeless people and learning some of their stories.
Some of the folks there were dealing with severe addictions or mental illness,
while others just seemed to look and feel defeated. As I listened to them, I
began to realize that somewhere along the line a parent or someone else gave
many of these folks the message that they weren’t worth very much either by
their words or by their neglect. A lot of people think that the homeless should
just clean up and get a job, but it’s not that easy because human
transformation only begins when we begin to believe a different message about
ourselves. Old scripts, old messages, harsh words are difficult to overcome.
At the beginning of a new school year, we need to be
reminded that all of us who teach are shaping others through our words and our
actions. Our words can build or they can tear down. When we take the time to
listen to God, to ask God for the right words, then we are much more likely to
lift our students to new heights and offer them a fresh vision of the future.