(The following is an excerpt from a sermon given on 04.13.08 in tandem with Pastor Steven Blair of FirstLight United Methodist Faith Community, Gardner, KS. You may visit FirstLight at www.firstlightgardner.org.)
From Talk to Chalk
Through the course of time human beings have had dominant modes of passing on vital information from generation to generation (or talking to one another). For about the first fifteen hundred years of this era (A.D./C.E.)-from the time of Christ until Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press-the most common way to pass information between peoples was through oral tradition. Oral communication dominated in the time before Christ, with literacy levels extremely low and written texts being extremely expensive to obtain and then maintain. Because of the lack of written communication, you told people the truths you had received. After the day was done, you sat down with family and told stories by fireside. In early Christian tradition, icons and stained glass, along with the architecture of buildings, also served as teaching tools for people that could not read. Stories were told with words and images, and were matters of public discourse.
Following the invention of the printing press we experienced a massive shift in communication methods. The printed word became king. Martin Luther, who initiated the Reformation, translated the Bible into German-the common language-and the book was printed en masse. Within two hundred years the Enlightenment age was well underway. Scholars began to pour over texts and publish their findings from their ivory towers of knowledge. Discovered truth was separated from lived practice.
Text-based transmission of knowledge dominated for over four hundred years, and it is within this context that much of our current educational institutions took shape. How do we teach people? With textbooks, and with lectures. Students are assigned chapters to read and problems to solve or questions to answer, which then supplement the lecture. The lecture is delivered by the teacher. The students are then tested by how well they are able to recall information. Our education is primarily centered on one aspect of our being-the mind-and how well we are able to cram our brains with the right information and reproduce that information on a test.
I don’t know what most of you think of when you see a piece of chalk. For some of you it might be hopscotch and sidewalk art. But for most of you it probably conjures up images of a classroom full of desk chairs, with a teacher standing at the front of the room. I’ll write this on the board, you write it in your notes. It will be on the test later.
Chalk, as a dominant symbol of a passive education method, needs to go. We have to think beyond passing on the right information alone to a more robust way of teaching and training people in the life of Christian discipleship.
From Chalk to Action
As the church-we need to move from chalk to modeling. Why the change? Think of the drastic shift young people have experienced in their learning environments. Fifty years ago a television made its way into nearly every living room. Now our students carry the internet in their pockets. Students text at a maddening rate on the cell phone. They are constantly being bombarded by alternative narratives and ways of being through the prevalence of media.
Because of this, our students need to see us living out Christian community, and including them as part of that community by doing things as simple as learning their names. We need to move from passive information transmission to active, experiential teaching of the truth of the good news about Jesus.
In the words of Alan Hirsch, “we cannot consume our way into discipleship”(The Forgotten Ways, 110). We have to live it. I’m not saying information transmission is not important, as though teachers at the front of the classroom writing on the chalkboard are wasting their time. What I am saying is that we have to couple the important information we wish to pass on to our young people with embodied-lived out-truth. We have to act our way in to discipleship.
The chalkboard approach yields students like Bart Simpson, who may have written behaviors which he will not do millions of times, but has not been transformed in to a person of character.
The central text in the Jewish tradition is known as the Shema Yisrael, and to this day this passage from Deuteronomy is spoken in synagogue services around the world. These words, beginning with “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” has been formative for the Jewish people. It was formative for Jesus. It was and continues to be formative for Christian people. These words ground us in the claim that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one who is Lord of all.
For us to learn how we are to live the faith, we need to take a close look at this passage. We’ll start in verse 4, and keep reading. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Isn’t that a great passage? There is so much to notice here. The words are to be kept in the heart, the center of our being. They are to be with us in our homes, in our workplaces and on our journeys, part of our conversation from the time we rise to the time we lay down our head at night. We are also to have symbols which remind us of these words which we can explain to our children and our students. Learning to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your might” isn’t something that just happens at a church gathering. It is part of every aspect of life.
If we’re going to trash the chalk, what can we replace it with? I have a proposal. An action figure. Not just any action figure, but a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Why an action figure? I have a few reasons:
- Action figures are part of a narrative-or a story-that we have to tell.
- Action figures have certain virtues which can be seen in their actions. These virtues come from the story.
- Action figures have certain practices, or skills we know that they are good at. Michelangelo is good with the nunchuck.
- This action figure, Michelangelo, is a student of a Master-Splinter.
- Action figures generally have a mission-a certain endeavor or goal they are working for.
I could keep going. For us as followers of Jesus, we are much the same.
- We are part of a narrative-the story of Scripture-that we are called to tell in word and deed.
- We are called to be people of virtue-a community of character. Our actions are tied to our story.
- As people who follow Jesus, we are to be developing certain skills. Through God’s grace we become a people of prayer, discipleship, service, Bible study, worship, and others.
- Like Michelangelo, we are students of a Master-Jesus Christ.
- As God’s people, we have a mission of setting the world back to right.
If we are to be a community committed to the discipleship of children and youth, we have to set the pace as followers of Jesus Christ. We have to be like action figures who love the Lord with heart, soul, strength, and Jesus adds mind (Matt. 22:37), modeling for our young people the truth we proclaim.
Sam Wells has written that, “Children are…a gift to the community in that the business of raising them, particularly shaping their faith and character, makes the community face up to questions about its own character”(God’s Companions, 98). What kind of people are we? To illustrate this point, he tells a story of a leader in a church who went to visit an elderly woman who had fallen ill. The elderly woman began talking about her father, saying, “He was old school. Manners! He used to shout, while banging the table. I will have manners!”
The church leader, about to become a parent himself, then asked, “Is there any way of teaching manners without banging the table? How do you bring a child up to value, to respect, to treasure, to cherish? How do you teach a young person to be grateful, generous, and thoughtful?”
The old woman sat back and thought for a while. She leaned forward and said, “There is another way. You’re not going to like it, because it is not easy.” Leaning forward even further, she whispered in her visitor’s ear, “Example.” She sat back. “See, I told you you wouldn’t like it,” she said.
It may be difficult to embody the truths we proclaim, but it is required. Parents, teachers, community leaders, we spend a fraction of our time together during the week in these gatherings. We’re going to have to take the Christian life beyond this gathering into the community, setting the pace for our children and youth to follow.