My brother Matt started a school in the worst neighborhood in Atlanta. It’s full of dilapidated houses and drug deals on the corners and prostitution and, among all that,… little children.
Last Christmas, we piled into Matt’s van as he drove us around that neighborhood, explaining what goes down in this or that area of the neighborhood. He lives in a nearby neighborhood with his family, and I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed he was as he drove us slowly through the crack-house lined streets of English Avenue. I was in the back seat with my sweet little niece and nephews, “casually” checking to make sure the doors were locked as two men appeared to be walking toward our van to see if we were there to buy drugs.
I wanted to say, “Matt, drive faster! What the heck are you doing! They think we’re here for something else because we’re driving slow and keep circling around!” But my brother, in his confident way, just waved at them and kept driving…slowly, sharing with us his heart for the generation of children who are growing up in this neighborhood. “See, right there! (pointing to two little kids). They need a future. They are why we have to start this school.” A pretty young girl (I estimated about 19 years old?) came walking out of an abandoned house to the right of us. I saw my dad in the front seat look at her with such compassionate eyes as he said, “Oh no, what a pretty girl.” And we all sadly wondered what she was just doing in there. And a fervent prayer poured out of my mouth that God would draw her to Himself and have mercy on her. I felt His heart for her.
My heart breaks to think about it even now. That this is the story of many people. The broken and the lost among us. How often I ignore them.
I think sometimes about the need for good teachers in the inner city. My friend Christin is one of them. I love her stories.
And then I think about me. I have taught for 12 years in classical Christian schools in fairly affluent communities around the country. Learned communities, clean communities. I look at what Matt is doing and sometimes wonder if it would be more noble of me to teach in the ‘hood. Maybe I shouldn’t be teaching at a classical Christian school in a nice neighborhood.
But then I think – Wait, the poorest of the poor or the wealthiest of the wealthy have this in common: the message of the Gospel is the same for them both…..They are both, we are all, in desperate need of a Savior. Brokenness is everywhere.
I see a younger version of myself in many of my students. Happy students who aren’t yet aware of the depravity of the world or the depravity of their own hearts and their great need for Jesus.
They think they’re good enough. That their families are good enough. Like I did. That because they’re not like those “bad” people, God loves them and accepts them.
I asked my 2nd graders, “Why do you think God gave us the Ten Commandments?” And the answer I got all the time was, “So that we can try harder to be good.”
And that’s when I gently broke it to them: “Did you know that the Bible says you and I can never be good enough? Not even your parents can ever be good enough. (I pause calmly while a few gasps are heard in the classroom). Our very very BEST behavior is not good enough for God.” And they would sit wide-eyed and confused, looking at me wondering what I would tell them next. I could hear their thoughts: Didn’t their moms drop them off at school this morning and tell them to “Be good”?? Isn’t “being good” the goal? Being clean? Being richer and happier?
But then I got to plant the seed of the Gospel and prayed that it would take deep root in their hearts and grow over time. I told them howJesus lived a perfect life because we couldn’t do it. That He’s the only one who never broke any of the Ten Commandments. That all we have to do is put our trust in Jesus, believing that He is the only one “good enough” to God, admitting that we have no righteousness in ourselves. And just like that (snap), God accepts us. He sees His perfect Son when He looks at all those who trust in Jesus to be their righteousness for them. Absolutely amazing!
Among other subjects, I get to teach Bible. When I taught 2nd grade, I was tasked to cover Genesis through Deuteronomy, the familiar Bible stories most of us know if we grew up in Sunday school: The Creation story, Adam and Eve, the Fall, Moses leading the people out of Egypt, the 10 Commandments, etc. No problem.
When I was hired to teach 4th grade though at my new school in Florida, I learned I would be responsible for teaching all the Prophets (Elijah through Malachi). Yikes! It was the part of the Bible I was least familiar with (Obadiah? Nahum?). I could name the books of the Bible, but up until that year, I wasn’t able to clearly articulate what was happening historically during those prophet years or how these men’s books fit into the overall narrative of the Bible. What if I butchered it?!
I remember collecting promises from some of these books in college, writing an out-of-context verse here and there in my journal and letting God speak to me through it. But I was missing so much of the big picture story of Israel that would have illuminated those verses to me. I didn’t know what I was missing.
I had a vague impression that I was missing a lot, but I was content for a long time to not know what those books were really about.
God in His sovereign wisdom though stirred my curiosity to take a class that was being offered at my church in Kansas City on the Prophet Books long before I knew I would be teaching on those books in Florida. And the teacher before me left me fantastic outlines too which have have been a huge help.
I had a pastor once who would say, “When we study the Bible, we first have to know what God was speaking to the people then, before we can know what He is speaking to us now.”
Basically, I tell my students that the Prophet Books are full of bad news, followed by good news. Israel divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, when some of the tribes did not want to follow one particular king. Israel continued to sin, worshipping false gods, acting unjustly to the poor among them, trusting other nations to protect them instead of trusting God, etc. So God sent prophets to warn them to repent or He would send judgement.
The people of Israel didn’t know they were far off from God. They half-heartedly followed Him, doing a religious ritual here and there, while mostly doing what they wanted.
A holy God, by his very nature, cannot tolerate sin (or He wouldn’t be holy). Israel’s God, in his perfect holiness, could not ignore their perpetual sin any longer. Like any loving parent, he HAD to discipline them. He had to correct them. Fourth graders get this when I say, “Would your mom and dad do nothing if you continued to disobey them over and over again? If they told you not to eat any cookies before dinner, and you ate a handful of Oreos before dinner in plain sight of your parents, would they turn their heads and pretend like you did nothing wrong? If you continued to hit your brother after your parents clearly told you not to, would they pretend they didn’t see it? Of course not! They love you! They cannot ignore your sin!”
So God let Israel be taken captive by the Assyrians. And later on, Judah, who thought they were let off the hook, was taken captive by the Babylonians.
Over and over, in the Prophet Books, we see the same thing – God sends a prophet to:
1. Warn of impending judgement because of Israel and Judah’s continued sin
2. Describe their sin
3. Describe the coming judgement
4. Call them to repentance
5. Promise a future deliverance
Bad news, then good news.
We’re studying Isaiah right now in fourth grade, and oh! I love it! We are discussing Isaiah’s message of hope that God still loves his people even though he had to punish them…..and that ultimately God would send a Savior who would bear all their sins.
We listened to the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s “Messiah” after reading Isaiah 9:6, where Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus, our Savior’s, birth. Hallelujah indeed!