Defensiveness is not a strategy

Years ago I had the grand privilege of teaching high schoolers each Sunday morning. Man, are they smart. And funny. And irreverent. And loaded with potential. If you do not have the privilege of really digging in and spending quantity (quantity - not quality) time with this group, it may be tough to appreciate the depth of their curiosity and their capacity to ferret out BS when they see it.

I had this one kid whose attendance was sporadic, and when he was there he was not exactly dialed in. This made me curious. Mostly he looked hung over on Sundays and there were some rumors about his extracurricular activities and the possibility that he might be a bad influence on the other kids in the group.

One day while buying groceries and junk food for my kids, his dad approached me about his son’s “religious education” and chastised me for his son’s sporadic attendance and his lack of bible knowledge (as evidenced by his inability to quote scripture verses from memory). This, according to him, was a reflection of my poor teaching and my lack of commitment.

So here is the thing about this story. This dad did not go to church. At. All. At the time I was super mad. But after I paused to prepare and really thought the story through, I felt an increased responsibility to this young man. I redoubled my efforts. I did NOT ask the kid to memorize scriptures but I did a few small things to increase his awareness that we teachers saw him. Cared about him. And without saying a word to anyone else about the encounter with the dad - who I would not have even recognized except for the fact that his kid was with him (yes, he said all this in front of his son) - we upped our game.

This was super hard. I wanted to “out” the dad for being a deadbeat. I wanted to whine and complain about all my weekly efforts and this dad’s absence from the life of his kid and I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “HOW DARE HE!!” But the problem with this approach was that it would not have been helpful to the kid, and that was my priority. That was in-line with my core value of loving kids as an expression of bearing God’s image. He already had one fun house mirror of a father image, did he need me tarnishing it further? No.

I do not know where this young man is today. I do know he made his way, eventually, to seminary. This is no guarantee that he has pursued a life of faith but I am pretty sure it required continued exposure to God’s word. I know that he has had a profound influence on my life. He is the kid that opened my eyes to all the ways we judge others and make assumptions about them. He made me realize I could do more - not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

It’s okay to learn even from people who don’t have it all together and even those who stir your anger. It’s okay to find inspiration in rumors of failure or in the face of criticism. How might God be getting your attention today through weird means and mean people?