Address to Phi Delta Lambda
Africa Nazarene University chapter
Thursday, October 30, 2014
We are all teachers. It’s a bold statement, is it not? We are all teachers.
I have not had the opportunity to speak with all twenty of our inductees. My suspicion is that some have formally studied education and are planning a career in teaching. Others have studied different fields – counseling, media, religion, law, and more. They may never stand before a classroom as a teacher. Still, the statement stands: We are all teachers.
I freely admit that I am biased. No task has brought me more joy or made me feel like I am using my best skills than when I have been teaching. Most of my teaching has been preparing men and women for ordained Christian ministry. One year saw me unlocking for high school students the mysteries of French grammar. Lest teachers have too high an opinion of themselves, God has a way of cutting us down-to-size. Terry Pratchett in his book, Mort, recalls a conversation. Someone observed:
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever… Have you thought of going into teaching?”
William Shakespeare once remarked: “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” With apologies to Mr Shakespeare, let me reframe his thought: “All the world is a school, and you and I are the teachers.” I ask you: What are we teaching our students?
Yes, like it or not, you are a teacher and – like all teachers – you have students, pupils that you may not even realize have secretly enrolled in your class. Your students are the ones who watch you. It may be a co-worker on your job, a child in your class at the Vacation Bible School, a camper, a player on the football team you coach, or perhaps one day your own son or daughter. These are not formal classrooms, yet life is a school and school is always in session. Others hear your words, but what do they learn from your actions, from who you are?
Each of us could recall pivotal moments when one of our “teachers” in life taught us something unforgettable. Allow me to share a few of the lessons I learned from them, lessons that mirror the three words from the Phi Delta Lambda motto:
Righteousness, wisdom, and service
- Righteousness is 24/7.
It caught my attention, the little Blue Nissan, or as they called it back then, a Datsun 610. It was a Japanese import, much like the Japanese imports that fill the roads of Nairobi. I was 17 and had just secured my first driver’s license in the State of New York. Now I was beginning a gap year between high school and university, a year when I worked 4o hours per week at the grocery store, saving money to attend Eastern Nazarene College.
But I needed transportation to drive across town to work, and that little Datsun grabbed my heart. The “For Sale” sign on the window had a phone number, so I called and set-up an appointment with the owner. I kicked the tires and looked under the hood. It seemed to be in good condition. Eventually, I asked the question: “How much?” The owner told me the price, several hundred dollars, and I reminded him that I would also have to pay sales tax on the vehicle. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’ll just write on the paper that you paid $ 100.00 for it, that way your taxes will be less.” I told him that I would need to talk with my father, and he understood. When I explained to my dad the owner’s offer to underreport the sales price, he replied: “Absolutely not, Greg. We’re Christians, and we will pay the rightful tax.” Later I brought the cash to the owner, and he handed me the car keys. “What should I write on the form for the tax assessor?” he asked. I told him what my dad had said, and he looked at me in disbelief. When I insisted that we must report the correct price, he shook his head and relented, but had this response:
“Your father is either very Christian or very stupid.”
Actually, I prefer to say: My dad that day was an excellent teacher, and what he taught me was simple: Honesty matters, and righteousness is 24/7.
The wisdom literature of the Old Testament has much to say on the topic. Psalm 33:5 reminds us that the Lord loves righteousness and justice. Likewise, in picturesque language, Psalm 85:10 tells us that righteousness and peace kiss each other, a reminder that when righteousness is absent, discord is never far away. Proverbs 16:8 is a values check, concluding: “Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.”
- Closing a door can be a wise thing to do.
Besides the lesson of righteousness being a 24/7 pursuit, a second lesson I learned – this time from other teachers – was that closing a door can be a wise thing to do. This runs contrary to a popular dictum in parenting. We are told to say to our children or even to those older:
“You can do anything you set your mind to.”
I understand why parents say that to their children. It is a way to encourage them to discover the world, to cast their net wide, to experiment with the many wholesome pursuits that a good God has placed before us. Yet there comes a time when it is merciful and wise for a teacher to close a door to a student and direct them to another path.
One of those moments came for me when I was 10 years old. When God passed out athletic ability at school, I must have been absent that day. Still, my brothers were good at baseball, and I wanted to be like them, so when the phone rang for Little League sign-ups, I joined up. We were the Senators and our team was terrible. We lost every game. My coaches put me in the outfield where they thought I would do the least damage. But it was boring in right field, and what I really wanted was to be a pitcher, so I begged and begged my coach and the assistant coach to let me show them how hard I could throw the ball. Before a game, I lined up across from the coach and gave it my best throw. He caught my not-at-all fast throw, then he did something I’ll never forget: When he and the assistant coach saw my pitiful throw, they looked at each other and – not trying to cover it up – they laughed.
Now, I’m not recommending that you laugh at children when they take part in sports and obviously don’t have the right stuff. But that day, my coaches – whether they knew it or now – were teachers and the lesson they taught this 10 year old student was an important one. They saw that I would never excel in baseball and they did something – whether intentionally or unintentionally – that was wise. They closed a door. The next year, the Little League phoned my house. I remember my mother saying: “Greg, it’s Little League calling. Do you want to play again this year?” And immediately my mind went back to last year’s coach and assistant coach laughing and it gave me courage. This time I said: “No, tell them I’m not playing this year.” Instead, I joined the Bible quizzing team at church and in coming years won more than a dozen trophies on the quizzing team. Further, I re-doubled my academic efforts and ended up graduating from high school in the top 10 of my class of more than 3oo.
My Little League coaches taught me an important lesson. While some have more talents than others, none of us can do everything that we set our mind to. Those moments will come for you when you – like my coaches – will have the power to close a door. Do it gently, but do it. To help a child or even a colleague at work discover where they are strong, you may need to be painfully honest and willing to frankly acknowledge where they are weak so they can be set free to pursue their strengths.
The Apostle Paul has something to say on the subject. He wrote in Ephesians 4:15 that unity comes in the Body of Christ when we speak the truth in love. In this way, let us exemplify the wisdom that comes from above by – when necessary – closing a door.
- To serve effectively, identify a need and pitch-in.
Besides righteousness and wisdom, the third value of Phi Delta Lambda is service. It was April of my senior year at Eastern Nazarene College and life was too busy. I was overwhelmed. There were papers to write and exams to study for, and on top of it all, I was directing the choir at church. It was an Easter musical, and it included drama. The choir members had asked several times: “What should we wear?” And in my cluelessness I replied: “Let’s just wear bath robes.”
I’ll never forget Marion. She came through in a wonderful way. At the beginning of the dress rehearsal, she came in from her car carrying large boxes. Inside were beautifully handcrafted Bible character costumes that looked like they could have been made by a first century seamstress in the holy land. For our performance, twenty choir members sang their heart out, proudly wearing the outfits Marion had lovingly made for them.
Marion was my teacher that day, and the lesson she taught me was this: To serve effectively, identify a need and pitch-in. I may not have the total solution to a problem, but more often than not, I have something to contribute. That is the essence of service. I read this week on FaceBook that Marion passed away after a short illness. She will always live in my memory as someone who knew how to serve.
Marion embodied the selfless ethic of Galatians 5:13 where Paul writes: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.” It is to this place of service that God calls each of us, both in the community of faith to which we belong or the workplace in which we will have the opportunity to model the value of service. Will we rise to the occasion?
We are all teachers and life is our classroom. Our students – both openly and secretly – watch us and they learn. They are of all ages. What will we teach them? As graduates of Africa Nazarene University and as inductees into Phi Delta Lambda, yours is to join the ranks of this society and to uphold its values of righteousness, wisdom, and service. Remember that righteousness is not part-time; it is 24/7. Secondly, wisdom sometimes will mean being caring enough to close a door, to help re-direct others away from their weaknesses so they can better exploit their God-given strengths. Finally, remember to serve, and to do it effectively, see where there’s a need then make your unique contribution. Righteousness, wisdom, service – these are our ideals. With these ideals clearly before us, and empowered by God’s grace to attain them, I welcome you, my colleagues, to Phi Delta Lambda.