My students are brilliant. They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful. Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments. Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day. It’s amazing to me. But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.
In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right. Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick. We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot. I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city. It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life. The teens are beginning to believe lies: success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up. It’s an awful, tough world indeed.
Yet, the young come. No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good. My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it. They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful. They listen and work hard. They ask me tough questions. Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up. Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible. They want to believe and understand.
In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us. My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God. The struggles begin when I start to talk about action. I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God. Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently. We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways. We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.
This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does. I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do? In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?
We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:
I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”
One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?” I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about. The first step might be to try to have faith.
Faith isn’t easy in this messy world. I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas. I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers. So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:
“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”
“How am I supposed to believe this?”
“How can I possibly do this?!”
“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”
In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough. We can complain but we don’t need to give up. Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him. “Sit down with Jesus,” I say, “and have a little chat. Ask him for some help and grace and understanding. Let him know how you really feel about it all. If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you. You might be surprised.”
I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help. I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is. I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.