“Forty percent of the students in my senior-level university class have diagnosed mental health disorders,” she said quietly, “and I have an individualized learning contract from the disabilities office for each one.” She went on to describe how this epidemic has changed her role and her style as a professor.
During the eight years that I have just completed as a university chaplain, I have been overwhelmed by the tidal wave of mental health struggles among students. Similarly, whenever I attend educators’ conferences, I am struck by the standing-room-only crowds at breakout sessions focused on mental health. As you probably know, these anecdotal experiences are corroborated by statistical evidence.
I believe that Christian educational institutions are positioned to develop a sorely needed critical response to this crisis. We can offer the gift of embedding these challenges within communities that are shaped by grace. In other words, there is a unique gift that we as Christian educators are privileged to draw upon.
Grace is one of the most misunderstood terms in the Christian lexicon. At its worst, it is reduced to two things: (1) Jesus forgives my sin now and promises that I will spend eternity with him in glory; and (2) we can let others off the hook for their mistakes and sins (just as Jesus let me off the hook for mine). While there are seeds of truth in each of these understandings, if they are taken to represent the heart of grace, they seriously distort and undermine the fruit-bearing power of God’s gift to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Both of these reductions perceive the work of grace as the removal of personal negatives. The metaphor that comes to mind is a ship that picks up damaging barnacles that must be scraped off each time it returns to port. The negative is removed, and the ship sets off on the next voyage. Our sins are forgiven, and we begin each day with our Lord whose mercy is “new every morning,” (Lam. 3.23), washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Beautiful as this is, it is only half of the picture. The other half looks like this: the ship limps into port, and is hauled onto the dry dock. Its engine is rebuilt, steering mechanisms vastly upgraded, carrying capacities strengthened, and crew brought in for more training. Finally, when it is sent back to sea, it finds itself amidst a fully renovated fleet, equipped for service in ways it had never imagined.
It has become part of a grace-shaped community.
Grace is transformational. Grace grows humbly into the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Grace falls flat on its face, has the mud wiped off its face, and sets out again with humble courage. The power of grace refines us incrementally, step by step, as our brokenness is put to death and resurrection new life grows in its place. This difficult transformational process often leaves us feeling weak, aware of how needy we are; if so, the Lord assures us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12: 9).
Calvin G. Seerveld describes members of grace-shaped communities this way: “They have suffered hurt without rancor, are gently corrective toward wrong rather than judgmental, and do not try to set things straight as much as order affairs lovingly, intent upon carrying along joyfully any who may be weak, trustfully biding God’s timing. They live like people raised from the dead; they don’t have to prove anything to themselves or to anybody. They are not compulsive people trying to make good or to live up to requirements. They are subject to grace alone, and act clean, singularly pure amid all kinds of complexities that won’t go away.”
We who are Christian educators are stewards of grace-shaped communities. As we ponder Seerveld’s description, various situations and faces come to mind that embody his words. We have tried to prove ourselves and then recognized how we suffocated grace in the process. We have sought to be gently corrective and to order affairs lovingly. We know all about complexities that simply will not go away. We are stewards of grace.
Embodying the Details
What might such grace-shaping look like in our classrooms, and what difference would it make for those who struggle with mental health challenges?