Christian Education: It is about the Children

This article is adapted from a devotional presented at the annual general meeting of the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools in November, 2009 by Leo Van Arragon, the Coordinator of Secondary Programs at OACS. Previously he worked in Ontario Christian schools in the elementary and secondary panels both as teacher and as principal.  He is a graduate student at the University of Ottawa in the Religious Studies Department. 

I want to share with you some thoughts based on the mischievous question, “So what are you doing here, on a Saturday morning when there are leaves to be raked and homes prepared for winter, when, after a busy week, you are putting in yet another day for the Christian schools?” I am not sure how many of you had similar thoughts when, last night, you anticipated an early start on a day when you really should be at home making pancake breakfasts for your loved ones, lingering over coffee and the Saturday-morning newspaper to consider the foibles of the world from the safety of your kitchens. Or maybe you are not like me and maybe you leap into the gladsome day eagerly awaiting the joys of spending the day at an Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools meeting while the rest of the world slumbers on in blissful ignorance of what it is missing, giving you a kingdom-of-God inspired reason not to wash the floors at home or paint the room that has become a point of contention between you and your significant other. But after all of that, the question remains, “What is this business of Christian education all about?”

To help us address this question I would like to turn your attention to three familiar stories that come to us from that wonderful source of inspiration we call the Bible, written for people like us, finding our way through mixed motives to a better understanding of this work of God to which we are called.

The first story comes to us from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus, in the middle of some serious theological discussions, responds to a group of women and children who come to him for attention and a blessing (Mark 10:13).

Women and children have a recurring presence in the Gospels, of course, and Jesus clearly sees something of their vulnerability and quite often tells us or shows us that they are at the heart of the kingdom of God. The encounters between Jesus and children are always placed where they jolt us back to the question, what is this about? We are involved in what we believe is God’s work: the complex work of building a kingdom, even spending our Saturday mornings on this task. Then, strategically, Jesus reminds us in this story to keep it simple. This is about children, he reminds us. I have been thinking about this as we consider ways forward with our schools and with the whole movement of Christian education. It is a temptation for us to think of our schools in terms of culture change, of our making an impact in the culture wars, of our political positioning, and other big-picture questions. But I continue to be astonished by children, especially now that I am a grandfather. So imagine your biological and your covenant children and grandchildren today as we consider the complexities of operating our schools: matters of governance, finance, school evaluation procedures, and pedagogy. If our responses to these complexities are not expressions of the arms of Jesus around our children so that they can learn—so that they can find God’s plan and purpose for their lives in ways that are life-giving and not burdensome—we may be missing the point.

But of course, there are the finance and governance and administrative issues, and there are strategic decisions to be made, aren’t there? Are they not the point of many of our discussions in our staff rooms and board rooms?

Matthew15 records for us a story that stretches our imaginations. We read an account of an encounter between Jesus and the crowds in which the work goes on for so long that the disciples come to Jesus with a problem that you and I would understand. And they offer a solution to which we can also relate. The problem? It is late in the day and there is no food. The solution? It is time to pack up and send the crowds home, healed or not. We get that, don’t we? When the resources run short, it is logical to close up shop or cut back our programs. After all, we only have so much and we have to be careful managers of those scarce resources.

Here I have to confess my ambivalence of following Jesus. Don’t get me wrong here, I do follow Jesus and am totally committed to serving him all my days. But don’t you feel he sometimes puts you in this awkward space that anyone with a decent business plan could avoid? You have these people around and they certainly need healing, but could we for once match resources with needs and fit the job into a manageable and achievable time frame? Aren’t there times when in our attempts to balance budgets and decide on admissions policies that Jesus’ logic simply does not coincide with ours? So, how about this idea? How about thinking of our schools for our children and their learning in the first place and then, more than anything, as places where we and our children walk with Jesus in a way that strengthens our faith and has us practice a kingdom-of-God logic. Can we see things through the eyes of Jesus? There are times when all we can see are the next two steps before us in our work in Christian schools, and beyond that, the way is not clear to us at all. But isn’t that the point? Sometimes all we have is our paltry five loaves and two fish, which we offer to God without any idea of what he may have in mind for us. But isn’t this the story of God’s people throughout history? So, here we are called to an educational ministry in a sometimes hostile culture in which the way forward is not always clear. So what is Jesus’ response? Tell the people to sit down, he says to his disciples, and provide them with food. Or, as Jesus says to Peter in another setting, in what I believe is the most moving passage of the entire Bible, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15).

You know the joke about the Exodus: It took the Israelites forty years to make a trip that should have taken about two weeks to find the only place in the Middle East without oil. So what does God’s map look like and where is it directing us? Maybe his map is going to take us into places we cannot imagine, with an eternal time frame that we cannot understand. And that brings me to the last story that takes place when Jesus is wrapping things up on earth. He is having his final conversations with his disciples when he gives them what we call the Great Commission. I’ve got a job for you, he says, a great work. To which we respond with the same bafflement as did the disciples on seeing the five loaves and two fish in the presence of more than five thousand hungry people. We don’t think we have what it takes to complete that great work, and, of course, we are right. We don’t. But that does not change the commission that we have been given. So maybe what needs to change is our minds about the job to which we are called. Our great commission is to the children of our communities and beyond. Remember that we are being commanded to make disciples of all nations, which means that we are being asked to serve children we may never have met before, who may be coming to us with needs and questions that we cannot anticipate. At those moments, we need to confess this is a task that is beyond us. We do not know how we will do this. And of course, this is exactly where God’s people have always lived when they are doing God’s work. We are about our Father’s business and the resources required for any God-sized task can only come through a work of God—like manna in the desert, oil that mysteriously fills our earthen vessels, water from rocks, loaves and fish that prove to be more than enough, and even a resurrection from the dead. The call to us is to move from fear to love for those we are called to serve. Because in the end, this is about God’s work in us.

I wish you blessings every day as you seek the face of God in your classrooms, your conversations, and your prayers. Remember three things. This is about children. You do not have enough. God has more than enough, and while you will be awfully nervous at times, God will not leave you or forsake you.

I am thankful that we can be involved with Christian education. It is good to walk with Jesus but it is especially good to walk with friends as we debate, consider and strategize how we can best bless our children.

Let me finish by reading the story from Mark to which I referred earlier:

“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me and to not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:13–16).