Thursday, May 28, 2009

Teaching Children the Concept of Grace

I have a confession to make. When I was in third grade, I committed a terrible crime. This is one of those secret sins, that if I was ever nominated for a high ranking government position, the Special Counsel to the President, the Senate Ethics Committee and the drive-by media would all uncover my atrocity. CNBC might even make a reality show portraying my wayward youth.

My crime?

I tore a math book.

I knew it was bad. And my fears were confirmed when Maria, the little girl next to me gasped and said, “Oooohhhh, are you in trouble now!”

She was right. I knew she was right. Hadn’t Mrs. Jackson stood in front of the blackboard at the beginning of the school year, lecturing us on the care of our textbooks promising gloom and doom and destruction if we dared to treat these hallowed tomes carelessly? I would have to pay for it. How many weekly allowances of thirty cents would it take to pay for this monstrosity of a book? What if my parents found out? Then I’d be in trouble both at home and at school.

My third grade mind feared the worst. If I hid my secret sin, it would be found out, for my book had a number on the inside front cover and Mrs. Jackson surely would check the numbers against our names in her role book at the end of the year. Besides, having an overactive conscience even in third grade, I couldn’t live with my misdeed. Especially since Maria knew.

So with tears streaming down my face, I took the torn book to Mrs. Jackson’s desk and lay the damning evidence before her. And she took out . . . .

. . . . her scotch tape.

With one deft movement, she whipped off a piece, attached it to the two torn pieces, smoothed it down, closed the book, gave it back to me and hugged me. “There. It’s all right now,” she said with a reassuring smile.

I think Maria was actually disappointed. I could read her thoughts behind the scowl on her face. It’s not fair.

No. It wasn’t fair. It was grace.

For you see, grace is not getting what we deserve. I deserved punishment. I deserved to pay for my carelessness. But I didn’t get it. I got grace instead.

That moment in third grade was my first illustration of the concept of grace. Later on, I would hear grace described in youth group as God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, and unmerited favor. But the best definition for me was a piece of scotch tape and a reassuring smile. “It’s all right now.”

Our children will best learn the concept behind God’s grace when we model it for them, when we dare to give them what they don’t deserve and to withhold what they do deserve. Yes, children still need to learn discipline, responsibility, and consequences of their actions. But once in awhile, when we know they know they deserve the fulfillment of the consequences of the rules we’ve established, it’s good to extend grace to them. Then we can explain, “That’s what God did for you when He allowed Jesus to die on the cross.’ Jesus paid for the torn pieces of our lives, for the rips and tears we’ve inflected on others. He used his own blood to seal the pieces of our lives together, so we might stand whole again before a holy, righteous God.

How can you show grace to a child this week? It doesn’t take much. It can be as simple as a piece of scotch tape.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Childhood Bullies: What The Church Can Do

Childhood bullies still roam the halls and playgrounds of our schools. Human nature, being what it is, will always desire the thrill of power, one-up-man-ship, the need to be top-dog, a craving for control. At the core, that is what sin iswanting ME to be in charge rather than God. The drive for power is more of a temptation for some than others. Children who are victimized from abuse, divorce, neglect or other bullies will often fight against their feelings of helpless and being out-of-control by seeking to find power elsewherein the form of bullying.

The good news is that schools no longer tolerate one child intimidating another child. In-service training in child abuse, mental illness and bullying is required for all teachers in the state of Ohio. Furthermore, schools across the country are finding that when character education is taught in school, incidences of bullying and violencegoes down and test scores go up.

Character education! What a novel idea! It’s what the church has been trying to do for years! Yet I see a dangerous trend in church curriculum that leaves us bypassing this important thrust of what the church ought to be doing. More and more, I see content focusing on what God does rather than what our responsibility is to God and our neighbor. Look at the one sentence description of lessons in this summer’s selection of VBS packets. Many of them tell the children such things as “God loves you,” “God cares for you,” or “God protects you.” I like one particular company’s theme because each daily thrust is something the child can do“Go Lead,” “Go obey.” It’s tangible. It’s applicable.

I’m not saying instruction about the nature of God is not important! We need a balance of both. Because of the vacuum left when the church and the home don’t do their job, the schools have had to insert character education into an already full schedule. Yet the church is the expert on character or moral education. There’s one big reason we ought to be the ones teaching this stuff. We hold the reason why! Why be kind? Why be responsible? Why respect others instead of attempting to rule others? Because God says so. Because God is the one ultimately in charge. Because God has been kind to us. Because God, ruler of the universe, has set certain rules or guidelines for mankind to follow and frankly, He’s got a better idea.

I applaud the Ohio character education curriculum. They acknowledge that public schools are not the exclusive teachers of character education. They freely admit that children need to hear how to treat others from the home and from religious and community organizations.

Let’s step up to the challenge. Let’s redouble our efforts to ground our kids in righteous behavior. Yes, we need to teach them who God is and how Jesus died for them, but we also need to teach them the “so-what?” response. We need to teach them and show them how to live godly lives. When we have troubled youths come to our programs, we need to have the courage to have a no-tolerance policy regarding teasing, hitting, intimidation and other demeaning behavior. The church, of all places, needs to become a safe haven.

We also need to listen to our kids. What is happening in school, at home, on the ball field? We need to give our students the tools they need to cope with life in the real world. The “nice” kids are often targets of bullies because they won’t fight back. I think we need to teach our young people how to stand up to evil without giving in to the same kind of behavior used against them. If you aren’t supposed to hit back, what do you do? How does a Christian respond to bullying? So, along with teaching our children how to act, we need to teach them how to respond when others don’t act in the way they’ve been taught.

So, where do we start? Look at the lesson you are teaching for next Sunday. After teaching that lesson, what change in behavior do you hope to see in your students? Think about your session last Sunday. What behaviors were expressed that need some work and some change? How are you going to help your kids build their character? Sometimes you can include teaching in a lesson; other times, it’s a matter of coming along side a child and saying, “Hey, we can behave in a different way.”

Sadly, last week, a newscaster castigated our society for becoming a “culture of ridicule.” Let’s work with the schools and parents to reverse that trend. Let’s bring up a generation of young people who treat each other with respect and kindness.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Childhood Bullies: Part Three

Children are these sweet little angels who make us smile with delight. Their eager curiosity charms us with their innocence. I don’t know about you but I feel deep hurt when I see one child bully another child. I want to grab them and ask with anguish, “Where did you learn to be so mean so young?”

A bully is made, not born. Bullying is all about power, the desire to redistribute the wealth of power. If a child is bullying other children, it is most likely that that child is feeling powerless in another area of his life or that he has learned that certain behaviors will make him top dog.

By using the pronoun “he,” I don’t mean to insinuate that all bullies are boys. Bullying can come in the form of physicalpushing, hitting, fightingor relational such as rumors, intimidation, verbal cut-downs. Boys are likely to be more physical while girls will often take the more indirect approach.

How do you know if you have a bully on your hands? A bully has often been bullied, shamed or humiliated himself or experienced violence, abuse or aggression from another source such as at home. The child may live in an environment where people solve problems by violence, intimidation or manipulation. Remember, bullying comes from a need to redistribute power, to feel on top. The final source of bullying tendencies is the media. Are you surprised?

Many public schools now have a no tolerance policy in regard to bullying. The state of Ohio requires all teachers to receive training in identifying bullies and victims. As Kay Pomeski, principal at the Sandy Valley Elementary School said, “Bullying is not a mediation issue. It needs to be confronted and stopped.” Pomeski explains that wagging a finger in the face of a bully, telling him to stop, is not enough. Then the teacher becomes the bully in the child’s eyes. The core issue needs to be discoveredwhy is the child bullying? It’s a two pronged approach. The bully needs help in learning why he is behaving in a certain way. He also needs to know in no uncertain terms that this behavior is unacceptable and he cannot hurt the victim any more. This is not easy, for every bullying situation is different.

I’m glad to see schools invoke actual policies about bullying. What about the church? Does your church have a policy regarding bullies? Does bullying happen in your church? How can we teach kids so we prevent bullying behavior? After the home, the church should be the place where we teach kids how to treat others. Unlike the school, we have the opportunity to put our character education against the backdrop of the Bible. Schools may be teaching kids the “how” of behavior; we can teach them the “why” of correct behavior. We can also help the victims know how to cope when they are picked on. I’ll discuss that in next week’s blog.