“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called TODAY…” - Hebrews 3:12
One of my most favorite times of the year is just around the corner! It’s when the school doors are flung open wide and my nearly 600 high school students come pouring into the school building to greet friends, welcome new students and share of the summer escapades. The synergy is electrifying!
I have come to believe that for students, high school life is often correctly characterized by Charles Dicken’s opening line in “A Tale of Two Cities” when he said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” While I love being a high school principal, I have not met many adults who wish to return to their teen years, as most would agree with the simple fact that “life is hard,” let alone life back in high school! While a new school year is exciting, it doesn’t take long before the “grind” begins and the struggle, anxiety, pain, frustration and wounding that inevitably arrives at many students’ doorsteps will come to light. The brokenness of this life cannot be avoided; but I do believe there is another way. It is possible to soften the blow and make life more bearable and even enjoyable!
To begin to uncover the answer, we must go back to when the world was perfect and God gave Adam his wife, Eve, because He said, “It was not good for man to be alone.” This is the first sign we are given that we NEED others in our lives! We were never meant to try and go at life alone. When Jesus invites us into His story, this relationship is vital and life giving...but the story gets even better as we are invited to join with a community of believers. Our faith was never meant to be individualized and privatized, but it must be rooted both in vertical community (between God and His people) and in horizontal community (among groups of Christians).
This sounds good at the onset, but here is where things get messy in high school and in Christian communities in general. The moment we really lean in and become vulnerable and honest, what quickly happens is that fear, pride and brokenness are either felt or revealed. It is then that too many recoil and withdraw from this community. For years I have watched good Christian kids play the part to try and get it right, but all the while reservedly holding back, hiding and faking that all is fine when of course it is not! Who really is fine after all? I’m not! What a weight we ask our young people to carry! This is not reasonable! Life isn’t fine, it is hard and yet young people are so afraid that if the truth came out on them, that they wouldn’t be accepted, welcomed, valued or affirmed. I have known so many teens over the years that would have loved to have confessed, “I smoked” or “I drank” or “I had sex,” or to simply say, “I feel a lot of pressure to perform and I’m pretty sure I can’t keep it up!”
If you have ever been around someone like this, words really don’t have to be spoken. If you will just stop and look for a moment, you can see it in their eyes. It happens when their “emotional cup” is full and about to run over, when the pressure is just too much. This year, like my past 23 years as an educator, I will ask a student if they are doing well and they will nod, or flash a fake smile, but I can see this is not true, for their eyes betray them and tell a different story. They are really crying out, “Who will be my friend?” “Am I important to you or anyone?” “Where is my significance? Is significance wrapped up in my success or lack thereof?” “Do I have any value?” “Will someone notice me?” “Am I worthy of anyone’s time, attention or affection?” Gentle pressing will cause the tears to begin to flow and then words of hurt, pain and sadness follow.
Today it hit me that so much of my life has been to climb a ladder: academic degrees, certifications, athletic championships, positions...just like I was trained to do...and like I am training students to do...as parents expect us to do! We challenge them to climb the ladder academically in the classes they take, their grade point average, their class rank, their ACT score, to win championships, to run for class office, to engage in a myriad of extra-curricular activities so their college resume is second to none. So they climb and climb and climb and when they climb that ladder better than anyone else, we applaud them and lift them even higher. At this point, who is really going to be honest and admit weakness or struggle?
All my life I have been extremely competitive and even enjoy climbing, BUT I am beginning to think that climbing detracts from communing. It is not in all of my goodness, that Scripture refers to as “filthy rags,” but in my poverty or great need that I meet Jesus and experience the presence of God. In places of poverty or situations of great struggle and pain, we see Jesus kneeling down in the dirt with the leper, the poor, the weak, the children, the publican, the poor in spirit. This is where Jesus seemed most at home. In fact, according to what I read in Scripture, Jesus seems to be doing a lot of hanging out at the bottom rung of the ladder. I should note that “climbing” and achieving is not an inherent evil and can actually be a great thing. But it also is the very thing that has been the downfall of great men and nations as competition and achievement can turn to idolatry and the pursuit of “lesser gods.”
While not a good school marketing pitch, I do wonder what our school would look like if our school community was more defined by being at the bottom of the ladder where Jesus regularly seemed to go. I believe a community that is more focused on what I'll refer to as the “ascent downward,” where greatest means least and first means last and strength means service, will then possibly begin to realize that:
My vision and my hope and prayer is these will be marks of our christian school community this year. Should we embrace these principles, I believe that students’ lives will be transformed and God’s kingdom will be advanced for “as long as it is called TODAY!”
(Refer to We Became Men and Ch. 8 “The Pressure of Performance” for further reading on this topic. I have seen countless men and women, young and old, paralyzed by this pressure - but it doesn’t have to be this way!)
Written by: Shawn Brower. 7/31/16