When I was an English teacher, I spent a lot of time and effort showing my students everything they were doing wrong. I had learned to teach and grade writing from some old school English teachers. And the basic method was to get kids writing a lot, mark up everything they did wrong, and get them to fix it, hoping they would do a little better next time. This was discouraging for me. I spent a lot of time marking up papers—there was usually lots that was wrong. And the method didn’t work. Paper after paper, students seemed to have the same problems. I was thinking: this can’t be great for my students either. Because they’d turn in their work to me, and get it back covered in a sea of red, letting them know they had failed again. How demoralizing.
I tried different things to make it less of a drag. I used green or purple pen—I’d heard that was less harsh than red. I tried to get students correcting each other’s papers—less work for me at least. I’d schedule one on one writing conferences, where I could tell students everything that was wrong instead of writing it down, while the rest of the class supposedly worked independently but more often than not devolved into chaos. But none of this was bringing a breakthrough in how my students or I experienced the writing process together.
Until I got an idea. It was from the mouth of Jesus, literally.
Every year about this time, my school had a 2-day retreat for the faculty to get to know each other and do some planning together. It was at a rural spot out on Rt. 2 Northwest of here, and when I could, I would bike out to the retreat instead of driving. This year, I stopped at Walden Pond on the way, to take a swim and spend a little time in prayer for the year ahead. It was a habit of mine every year I worked in the public schools to take a day or a half day in late August and pray for the school year and my work as an educator.
This year, I was at Walden Pond, and I was reading parts of the gospel of John to guide my prayers, and these words from Jesus jumped out at me and changed the way I taught writing.
These were the words:
John 3:17 (CEB)
17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
And I thought, what am I doing as a teacher? Am I there to judge them or save them? I could wiggle out of the question—neither of those were really my place. This is a passage about God’s work through Jesus, not you or me. But that’s not where my mind went that day alongside the pond. I was struck hard by the question: in my teaching, and in my teaching and assessment of writing in particular, was I an agent of judgment or an agent of salvation?
Was my work first to hold up a standard of excellence for my students, point out the many ways they continually fell short, in hopes that they’d be motivated and skilled enough to make the mark eventually? That sounds like judgment.
Or was my work to come alongside my students and say and do the things that would have the most likelihood of improving their lives—motivating them to engage in education, developing growing skills and confidence and inclination to try more and harder? That’s not the difference between knowing God and not, but it’s a type of salvation. My students who did well and grew skills and confidence were more likely to finish high school, less likely to end up incarcerated or impoverished, more likely to have greater opportunities in their adult years. The stakes were real—and was my job to be an effective part of moving life forward for them, or to hold up and enforce the standards?
Now if this was a talk for a room full of English teachers, or even just educators in general, I’d go into more detail here about educational philosophy, assessment practice, writing pedagogy, why the standards themselves are by no means the problem, all that stuff that’s really interesting to me but not to everybody here.
I’ll also say I’m simplifying the story a little bit to say that Jesus told me how to teach writing. We don’t know if the words I read were Jesus’ or the biography’s author, who we call John. Because quotation marks weren’t invented yet. I also was reading a fair bit about assessment and teaching practice that was influencing my thinking at the time.
But that day, reading the words of Jesus on my way back to school, praying about my work, it struck me with force that I had an opportunity, in my heart it felt like an obligation, to move from an agent of judgement to an agent of salvation.
I told Jesus: count me in, I want to be on team salvation!
This meant a lot of things. In my feedback, for instance, I always used my pen to notice and point out the strength and possibility in my student’s thinking and craft. It was hard sometimes—I got some lousy papers. But I tried to see and tell students I saw the good there.
I also limited my critical feedback to one or two issues or themes my students could take action on, avoiding the overwhelming judgement of the sea of corrections, and focusing on one or two actionable ways they could improve.
There were a lot of other things I started doing to show my students I was for their success, that I liked them, to encourage and motivate them to be their best and do their best. And wouldn’t you know it, I started getting some amazing results.
What this really came down to was the beginning of learning to love in public.
We think and talk and sing about private love, the love in a marriage or a romance, the love between friends, the love among family. But we can learn to love in public as well. And whether we learn to practice public love together makes a big difference in the kind of workplaces and schools and communities we live in. It’s our best way to participate in God’s work we might call salvation.
Today’s a back to school day at Reservoir, so I want to ask you for a minute to think back about your experience in school? If you’re still a student, you can think about your first day back this year if you’ve already had that. Or you can think back to last spring. For all those of us who aren’t students, think back to when you were, and ask yourself, how much love and kindness did you experience in school?
Are your school memories primarily marked by love and kindness, or by criticism and judgement?
What comes to mind?
Most of us have a mix of the two, I certainly do. But I know that a lot of the time, our experiences of criticism and judgement hit hard and impact us more.
Most of us who think, I am not creative, started thinking that in elementary school, when we were told just that. We think: I can’t draw, or sing, or write, or speak, or do math—you name it. Because people, our peers, often even our teachers, told us so.
Most kids who don’t like school have our frustrations set in by 4th grade. And then we’ve got 8 more years, or 12 more years, for those frustrations to continue, during some of the most formative years of our life.
Even those of us here who did really well in school, who shined and thrived, we can remember plenty of experiences of humiliation or injustice, unkind and critical things said and done by our peers or by the adults who had so much power in our lives. Or we remember our friends or our siblings and the lack of love and kindness they met in school.
School can be tough.
But there are people are trying to do something about this.
I heard, for instance, an interview on the podcast On Being, with a neuroscientist named Richard Davidson. Davidson has done a lot of work in neuroplasticity, one of the great insights of science in our lifetimes, showing us that the brain doesn’t harden into fixed shape, and fixed capacity when we’re young. Our brains – how we learn, how we feel, how we process and engage with our worlds, can change even during our adult lives.
And Davidson was being interviewed as part of a back to school forum in a California school district. The forum was called Love, Kindness, and Education.
And he was saying that love and kindness don’t just boost morale in schools… they boost our brain’s power to learn and perform. Environments of higher judgement, discipline, and stress impede learning. But schools where love, kindness, and mindfulness are taught are able to improve learning, performance, creativity, and much more. Environments of love and kindness in school create the safety that helps us better regulate our attention and engagement and so really thrive.
So this ground-breaking neuroscientist Richard Davidson is involved in programs to teach mindfulness and increase love and kindness in public schools.
I was so lucky when I entered the classroom. I was in a new, start-up school that was chaotic and had all kinds of problems, but was committed to creating an environment of love and kindness. While I was struggling in my first year as a teacher, a colleague told me, Steve, you’ve got to start my liking your students. Because if they know you like them, they’ll do what you want. Relationships come first.
And then a couple years later, there was Jesus, meeting me at Walden Pond through his words in the gospel of John, asking me if I wanted to judge my students or join him in saving them.
I’m calling us to something today that is decidedly uncommon. Love and kindness are not the currency of our public life.
Our schools can be uniquely oppressive is how often people are graded and ranked and diminished. But the grading and ranking and diminishing of people in central to our workplaces, our social media, our reality TV, our immigration policies. Everywhere you turn.
Try renting an apartment in this city. Some of you have spent a lot of time doing just that, maybe you’re scrambling for housing now, on moving day in this city. It takes so much time. The process is so stressful. All throughout there are people there to take advantage of us. And the rents and the mortgages we pay eat up our incomes and push us toward debt and more stress.
This is not a pro- or anti-capitalism or landlord sermon. That stuff’s out of my league. But our economy does not naturally promote public love and kindness.
Our politics certainly don’t. With our president very much leading the charge on this, we see a lot of “put myself and my kind first” but very little love and kindness for the other, very little concern for the long-term, greater good.
We live in an impatient, unkind, irritable age. But our fixation on me and mine in public life, our constant “grading” and ranking and diminishing of people, our inability to make our institutions places of love and kindness, this is all antithetical to the world as it should be.
And our world as it is provides an amazing opportunity to practice the good news of Jesus.
Here these words from one of Jesus’ first century followers:
I Corinthians 13:4-7 (CEB)
4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
If you hear or read this passage from the Bible, it’s usually at a wedding. Which is great. You could do a lot worse in a marriage than love the way this poem speaks of love. Who wouldn’t want a marriage that’s shaped by humble, gentle, trusting, patient love. I’ll read this at a wedding any day.
But in the context of the letter in which these words were written, they were not first about weddings or marriages or romantic life at all. These words were written in the context of public life. In this case, they were written to a church congregation where people didn’t get along. Where rich were favored over poor. Where showy, impressive spirituality mattered more than love and kindness and unity. Where integrity was rare, and moral hypocrisy rampant.
These words were written to people to encourage them to learn and practice love in public life.
As a pastor, I’m moved when people learn to love well in private. When I meet with individuals and couples, when I see about people practicing the kindness and patience and gentleness with yourselves that God has for you, I am so happy. And when I hear about couples loving and respecting and treasuring each other as people, that makes me feel really good.
But there’s also something particularly inspiring when I see you being people of profound love in your public lives.
I remember this year talking with one of you that owns a business that was booming. But what really excited you wasn’t the profits you were going to make or the praise you were getting, but the happiness and the opportunity you were creating in the lives of your employees. That kind of generous opportunity creation is love in public.
Or another time where I got to see one of you working to change racial injustice in school discipline, to implement policies and procedures and practices that would ensure that your race didn’t have an impact on whether you were suspended or in any other way disciplined by the school you attended. That kind of justice is love in public.
Or the time when when another one of you tried to convince us all that the homeless opiod users we encounter on the street aren’t a scourge we need to eliminate but our neighbors we need to protect and befriend. That promotion of kindness is love in public.
Or taking it out of the work we do, there are the many times when I find out that one of you – in your apartment building, or in your circle of moms, or at your job, is known as the most trustworthy of friends, the kindest in disposition, the most helpful of neighbors – that is love in public.
And that is the good news of Jesus, made real, embodied, present to our world not to judge but to save.
Now I’m kind of saying two things at once today, so let me tease them our separately for just a minute.
I’m saying that Jesus inspired me to practice public love and kindness in my classroom, and that Jesus calls us all to public love and kindness, to help our communities where we live, the industries in which we work, the public rhetoric from social media to our democracy be kinder and more loving. And I’ll come right back to that.
But I’m also saying that each of us deserves environments of love and kindness in which we can grow and flourish. You deserve neighborhoods and governments and schools and workplaces where persistent love and kindness are practiced.
But a lot of the time, this isn’t what you get. You get ranked or diminished. You get coldness or discrimination or injustice.
What do you do when you don’t get the public love and kindness you need and deserve.
Sometimes, you can walk away. I’ve followed the story this year of a public theologian and professor named Christena Cleveland who was trying to do her work in an environment that she found to be persistently racist and diminishing of her personhood and her contributions. And even though it was a really prestigious environment too, she quit. She decided she would take her game elsewhere.
And in her explanation, she quoted the great soul singer Nina Simone, who sang:
“You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.” When love isn’t being served at our tables, sometimes we’ve got to find a better table. Sometimes we’ve got choices in which family and friends we give our time to, which companies and divisions we work in. And sometimes, we’ve got to leave environments where love and kindness aren’t being and won’t be served.
But obviously, a lot of other times, we can’t or won’t want to leave. Many of you can’t leave or don’t want to leave your jobs, whether the culture there is lovingkindness or not. Students, most of you can’t leave your schools or choose your classrooms. You’re just there. And many of you live in neighborhoods, work in industries where you can make it an environment of more public kindness and love.
Which is why it’s important that we tell ourselves that we’re worthy of love and kindness, and why we need the prayers and blessings of a faith community that tells us we’re worthy of love and kindness.
I have a friend who’s diminished a lot because of her appearance, how she’s gender nonconforming. So she likes to wear this shirt, that says: I am the image of God. I love that. Good for her.
I spent a day in prayer before every school year not just to be ready to love more, to do good work, but to remember I was not alone, that God went with me into the classroom.
Every week at Reservoir, we aim to tell you in different ways that God made you, that God loves and treasures you, that God is for you, delights in you. And if you stick around this community and get engaged, I think you’ll find people showing you that as well.
I’m going to recommend a spiritual practice in just a moment too, to ground yourself in God’s love and kindness for you each day. And during our third song after I speak, when we practice our little meal that shows us God is with us, what we call communion, our pastors are also going to stand up with blessings for our students and our educators. On this back to school weekend, we want every student and educator in this room to get a prayer of blessing. So we hope you’ll welcome that.
During that third song, we’ll invite all of you who want – as we always do – to participate in communion. But then, we’ll also invite every student and educator in the room to go behind the communion, to where some of our team will stand – to my left and right – to say a short prayer for your year, and to let you take a rock as a reminder of that blessing. They say things like hope and patience and love, all that we hope you will have for yourself and bring into your schools this year.
This really matters. It really matters for your flourishing that you welcome love and kindness into your imagination, no matter how sweet or heard your public environments are.
And it really matters that we be people who practice love and kindness in public as well. One last scripture before I close, from another one of the Bible’s letters.
I John 4:7-12 (CEB)
7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. 8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. 10 This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.
11 Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us.
I John tells us that the clearest picture we’ll ever see of God is in the person of Jesus, laying down his life for his friends – you and me included. Because the very nature of God is love. God doesn’t act loving for some strategic reason. God doesn’t try to love, as if God could do anything else, or make any other choice. God is love – patient, kind, generous, self-giving, way-making love.
And so one of the most sure-fire ways to be close to God, to experience God close to us, to be fully alive in the world is to love others, including love in public. I John goes even further than this and says learning to love others is really the only way we can be close to God, and anyone who isn’t doing this doesn’t know a thing about God or anything else that matters.
In my last gig in education, I came in talking about love in public. I was apparently the only one in the principal candidacy pool who had structured my principal licensure portfolio around love in public, and I talked about a vision of public love in my interviews. I was told later that this is part of why I got the job. Apparently, the world is hungry for more love and kindness.
But as I was leaving that job to pastor this church, I kind of wanted people to talk about how great I was. I wanted to be ranked and graded, and ranked and graded highly. I wanted people to praise my achievements. And I know I did some great work there, but mainly that’s not what happened. I wasn’t there long enough for that. I had fans and detractors of my work too. But at least some people had something more important to say.
One teacher stopped by my office on my last day and told me: Steve, you know what you did here, you brought more kindness to this place, and that’s just we needed. That kind of broke my heart open, you know.
I’ve heard one of you say that about this Reservoir community too, that unlike most of the communities of any kind you’ve been part of, almost everything you hear and experience and Reservoir is full of kindness. That moves me to hear as well. Because whether or not that’s always true of us, and I know it certainly isn’t of me, that is certainly true of God – that God is always full of love and kindness, and that can be our highest aspiration in our world as well. To be people of love and kindness, who make cultures and institutions of love and kindness as well.
Hear these closing invitations:
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Learn how to practice love in public. This will make you a powerful, saving force in your job and community. And it will bring you into an experience of closeness to God.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Early in the day, each day this week, tell yourself: God loves me, all of me. There is no part of my to which God is not loving and kind. And say to God and yourself: I want to practice love and kindness today in all I do.
“Bless you with hope, joy, patience, and love for yourself and your students/teachers.”