What seems like a hundred years ago, the class with the reputation for disorderly conduct finally made it to the fifth grade. They were a rowdy bunch. So rowdy in fact that the 16 designated troublemakers (and that was only the boys) could not be divided thinly enough. I knew these children well enough to suspect this would not be a fun year. After only a few months, my suspicions were confirmed.
Back then students had a chance to explore band, art, and choir on a rotating basis to decide whether or not they wanted to participate in one of those classes as an elective the following year. Our unsavory group of 16 boys wreaked havoc wherever they went, which sent them to a study hall meant only for those in need of remedial help. The boys were so disruptive that the students who sincerely desired help could not receive it.
I must have been sleep deprived when I asked for the eight worst boys to come to me during that 50-minute class period. To this day I don’t know what got into me. This decision surely took 10 years off of my teaching career! Every penny I made that year was earned during those 50 minutes – but they taught me so much.
I heard the stories of bondage in their families: alcoholic parents, absent fathers, drug use, physical abuse and extreme poverty. I discovered the most detrimental thing for a young boy is abandonment by his mother. Their stories softened my heart enough to understand that the main reason these boys couldn’t find freedom from their hurt, anger, insecurity, and loneliness was because they didn’t know they were slaves. They thought life was supposed to be that way. Hope was a foreign commodity.
Desperation and a desire to find a crumb of goodness in those stinkers birthed the Patriot Gentlemen class. We studied the benefits of good manners and respect. They were given white dress shirts and ties from our church’s benevolence house. They learned how to iron the shirts and tie the ties. Every time they left class, whether they were delivering thank-you cards to past teachers, cleaning restrooms, or reading to young children, they wore their shirts and ties. At the end of the year, we wrote a rap song together, and they performed it in the school talent show. Their performance won them first place! For a window of time they saw themselves as boys worth loving. They experienced a fleeting moment of acceptance, the likes of which they had only dreamed.
By the end of the year I was worn out, but almost hated to see them move on. I’d like to say they all turned their lives around enough to become model citizens, but it takes more than a shirt and tie to change a life. The ones still living are all thirty-something now. I rarely see any of them. As far as I know, only one of them got the chance to reform. His single mother got a rare glimpse of what he could be. She encouraged him by being one of only two parents who showed up on their “graduation day”. She found a glimmer of hope and held on tightly.
Many Christians have lived in bondage for so long that they think life is just supposed to be that way. One of them used to live in my skin. I thought I was just fine and dandy if I earned a good grade with God by going to church, teaching Sunday school, and being involved in church and community events. I had no idea I was a slave to the rules until I held my life up against freedom. That contrast proved that it takes more than a clean white dress to change a life.
If you don’t feel the freedom we’ve been talking about for the last few weeks maybe it’s because you haven’t made that comparison. It took a diligent, fresh look at the gospel of John for me to see just how much God loves me and wants to spend time with me. I’ve tried to be very transparent with you about my hang-ups in hopes that you will find what I have found. Take the lid off your life and peek inside.
The biggest eye-opener for me came when I honestly thought about how I see other people’s sin. That’s an excellent indicator of how we think God sees us. Here are a few of the questions I started to ask myself:
When you are in a crowd of people, do you find yourself judging people who don’t look like you?
What thoughts go through your head when you see (or smell) someone unkempt, or covered with tattoos?
What about those who are too perfectly put together?
How do you react to interruptions?
What about when you see friends smoking, drinking, or using bad language?
Do you criticize different worship styles?
When religion is discussed are you more likely to clam up, explain why you believe what you do, or are you eager to tell all that God has done for you?
Are you more concerned with taking people to church or introducing them to your friend Jesus?
Do you shy away from people who are genuinely excited to be Jesus followers?
I didn’t like most of my answers, but now I see how God is slowly transforming the way I think – chipping away everything that doesn’t resemble Jesus. He’s not mad at me. He just loves me too much to leave me the way I was. What if my Patriot Gentlemen had learned that?
Not everyone agrees with every point of my theology, and that’s okay. I can’t be someone else’s Holy Spirit, nor can they be mine. I know I’m in the Word and on my knees. I trust the Spirit to teach me all I need to know. I love God and He loves me. When I mess up even in the slightest way, and that’s daily, the Spirit convicts me so I can learn. I’m now able to see God’s hand more clearly and, as a result, I have a joy I can’t contain. I’m looking for ways to share His love with as many as I can. Just in case you haven’t noticed yet – freedom in Jesus is a hoot!
“I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, ‘You’re nobody!’ they’re calling you ‘God’s living children.’” Romans 9:25, The Message
And all the people exclaimed, “Hallelujah!”