My German grandmother occasionally quoted, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.” I often feel that way. At the beginning of my eighth decade I think back with gratitude to my years of working with students and teachers in Christian schools. I am grateful for all that I learned from them but it is only in recent years that I came to understand ways I could have improved my own work.
In the book Educating for Life, Nick Wolterstorff says that the Christian life must be a life of seeking justice for those who need it—for the poor, the downtrodden, the needy. He says that our lives are to be activities of thanksgiving. Remember that the Great Commandment Jesus gave us for our lives has two parts.
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22: 36-40
Christians are often better at keeping the first part of the Great Commandment than they are at keeping the second part. Our neighbor is every person who suffers from abuse, or scorn, or ridicule, or hunger, or lack of shelter. Our neighbors are all human beings made in Gods image, even if they do not, themselves, know God.
In a survey of 2500 middle school students in Christian schools we asked whether they had helped anyone in need outside of their own family. Only 40% answered that they had done so but then explained that they had done so by telling someone about Jesus Christ. It was clear that they had confused witnessing with serving or helping in a physical way. Many Christian adults interpret fulfilling the second part of the Great Commandment by supporting mission organizations financially rather than helping those in need or working for justice for others.
While working on our book, Families Living in the Fabric of Faithfulness: Parents and children describe what works1, my daughter Julia and I interviewed or surveyed many young adults who, no matter what their jobs, were actively engaged in helping those in need. We asked what in their background influenced them to be engaged in this kind of volunteer work. Separately, we interviewed or surveyed their parents and asked the same question about their adult children. While their answers differed, they gave us many ideas concerning educating children for the Christian life of seeking justice for those in need.
o I really believe that what parents model in their own lives will be emulated by their children, but only if it is explained and makes sense to the child. Children learn in so many different ways and justice has to be taught in a way that the child will understand its importance whether that be through experiential learning or by watching a situation unfold. Because I saw my mom get satisfaction from helping others, I learned that service is positive. Because I experienced injustice in my own life and saw the injustice in others, I learned that service is necessary.2
o The most impacting experience was when I read the Bible to an elderly man who could no longer do it for himself. I don’t remember why I did it. It was probably required for a high school class.3
o My high school football team would go to the low-income projects and help clean up, paint, and so on every year. In high school I worked with an agency that helped feed homeless people. Nothing too extensive though. Honestly I thought it would help my chance of getting into college.4
o Our daughters grew up seeing their parents help others… Many times they heard me say that it isn’t about us, it’s about them. I grew up in Chicago and my parents were both very prejudiced. I would often talk to my children about how everyone is important and it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. Beauty comes from within. I really wanted my children not to worry so much about their appearance but realize what was important was their actions.5
The kinds of service families or classes can do will depend on the needs of people in the area in which you live. Have a family or class meeting to discuss the kinds of service you will do together to help others.
Will these activities always lead to changed hearts in our children and students? Not always, of course. One of the parents who responded to our survey said the following:
“It is very important for us to hear from our kids their thoughts about faith and generosity and values. But we have come to realize that part of their humility is not sharing or broadcasting their “good works” with us. Part of their integrity is not sharing a lot of thoughts that would make us feel good that they have carried on our values and our faith. So there are times we have wondered. But it leaks out, and others around them have shared things with us that make us realize how deep their faith and generosity and thoughtful care is for others. We have to leave the result up to them and to God.”
Did my husband and I incorporate these activities into our family life? To a certain extent we did but not often enough and not with the intentionality and discussion that is needed. I wish so much that I had incorporated that understanding into my teaching, whether at home, or in the elementary classroom, or in college classrooms, or in presentations for teachers or parents.
GG Stronks and JK Stronks, 2010 ↩