Grace for Today: School Years

given on August 8, 2010

The calendar says it is time to transition back into school mode whether I am ready of not.  Still, the calendar indicates that school begins this week!  What better time to introduce you to some students and show how grace shows up in the classroom.  Remember, grace is God’s love in action.  No law can be made that removes God’s love from any individual.  The law simply says that in public schools we cannot directly teach religion to the students.  Grace is present always and anywhere.  Even if students and their families are not practicing a religion, grace is there.

But back to the students:  As you know, on Election Day, a group of young teens stopped for a cooling break and night at Chilhowee.  What an opportunity it was for me to visit with some of them and to learn their stories.  As I left, I asked them to write a little bit about themselves and/or their journey.  The next morning Arlen, the leader, handed me an envelope with their notes, which he had not read.  (I have to respect the confidentiality, of course, but I can share some of their pieces.)

One 16-year-old young lady from Massachusetts wrote:

A meaningful experience of mine was the day that we had to climb a mountain in Utah.  The mountain became extremely difficult for me and my knee was in tons of pain and all I wanted to do was give up.  I was selfish and forgot what I was riding for, “Boys who can’t.”  I was forced to finish the climb even if that meant me walking up the last mile.  At the end I realized how far I really came and that I never gave up.  It made me realize the strength that I really have.  Everyday I think about that moment and it helps me get through whatever it may be that is giving me trouble.  I am extremely thankful for that experience and wouldn’t change it for a thing.

What a testimony for a young person to share!  I was reminded how tough life can be for any one of us.  I also hear how God was with her each push of the pedal.  This is one young lady who knows how to set a goal and then to pursue it until she succeeds.

In my alternative classroom, the same 16-year-old girl learns that despite all the negatives she has endured in her short life, she, too, can reach her goal of graduation.  The difference in the two is that others supported the mountain cyclist around her.  The young lady in the classroom has failed and finds no one to support her.

The at-risk young women who join our program can be divided into about three categories:  abused, health-impaired, or simply unsupported.  The stories vary, but the truth is that they do not have the support of family, friends, or even school.  They may have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as early as pre-schoolers.  They may have damaged their health due to drugs and alcohol becoming diabetic with little hope for normal life expectancy.  Sadly, though, many are simply unsupported.  They come from single-parent households, they have two working parents who do not engage in their lives, or they have a learning difficulty no one identified.

The young ladies are no different than the young men in my classroom.  Gender does not have a boundary on the problems that create at-risk students.  Poverty is one hurdle that knows no boundaries, whether gender, age, location, or intelligence.  Poverty is a growing concern in our local communities and it makes it difficult for young people to see any chance of success.

Just as poverty knows no boundary, neither does grace.  God loves each and every one of us.  Those of us sitting here are aware of God’s love and have an established relationship with him.  Many, all too many, young people have no idea who God is or what grace is in their lives.  They experience each day for what it is.

Another cyclist wrote of his experience.  His background is a bit different, an 18-year-old listing two home towns:  Medford, Wisconsin and Northbridge, Massachusetts:

As we were going to finish our 10,000+-foot climb on the Rockies, we had a downhill.  There was a bridge:  A wooden bridge.  A moist, wooden bridge.  We were going pretty fast on the downhill, and on the bridge some of us almost crashed.  Me?  I slammed on the brakes and spun in a 180o turn.  Something stopped my fall, and I believe that something is trying (and doing well) to help us survive.

Something?  Don’t you agree with me that he experienced God’s grace.  He, too, has been tested and discovered that there is a source of saving grace.

Unfortunately I have witnessed too many young men who have not found God’s saving grace.  The young men who walk in our classrooms may already have so many negative spinouts that just having the freedom to come to school can be a break in their downward spiral.

As we have learned, God’s grace is a gift given to us at birth.  We do not have to do anything to receive it, but we also know that we must learn about God’s love and then work to put that love into action.  It is a task that does not retire.  It is a task that reaches back through the generation and will reach into the future.  The youth are the future and right now that future is looking terribly bleak.

Researching this week, I learned that according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2008 there were 5,911,605 juveniles in the Missouri court system alone compared to 304,059, 724 million in the United States.  To bring this into even more direct relationship to us, there are 22,179 in Henry County and 52,016 in Johnson County.  Now remember that is a total count from ages 0 through 25+ (some sentences continue after age 25).

Maybe looking at just the kindergarten ages of 5 and 6 might make the picture a little bit clearer:

  • Henry County: 272 are 5-year-old juveniles and 271 are 6-year-olds
  • Johnson County:  689 are 5-year-old juveniles and 661 are 6-year-olds

The figures are mind-boggling.  How can that be right here in our own communities?

According to the Population Reference Bureau and data released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are various factors that affect well-being in our kids stalled in the 1990s, but the current year indicates:

  • Five area have improved:  the infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, and teen birth rate; and the percent of teens not in school and not high school graduates.
  • Three areas have worsened:  the percent of babies born low birth weight, the child poverty rate, and the percent of children living in single-parent families.
  • Two areas are not comparable:  changes made to the American Community Survey’s 2008 questionnaire regarding employment affected the ability to track trends for the percent of teens not in school and not working, and the percent of children in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.

These facts and figures do not create a very positive image, but I still have hope.  Remember the stories of the cyclist.  They are proof that God’s grace does make a difference.

One young lady had a brother who was fighting a chronic illness.  It was the first time she had been away from her mom, but her brother’s hospital visits and care takes a tool on them.  The ride was a respite and a growing experience for her and her mom.  God loves each of them and she will be one of the success stories.

Faith is one of the tools we have to guide us in our journey and today’s youth are not in church.  In the website, a group of educators in Minnesota and Texas studying faith in the lives of your and young adults, the following data was presented:

  • High percentages (approx. 50-95%) of baptized children participate in children’s ministries and confirmation.
  • High percentages (approx. 65-75%) of baptized and confirmed youth cease participation in worship and congregational ministries by age 21.
  • High percentages (approx. 50-60%) of baptized and confirmed youth who ceased participation in worship and congregational ministries by age 21 have not returned to participate in any faith community by age 35.
  • The baptized and confirmed youth who ceased participation in a faith community by age 21 and have not returned by age 35 have an anemic, distorted faith and theology which neither glorifies God nor serves humanity nor blesses them.
  • Approximately 10% of baptized children/youth continue in the life of the church and “grow in grace”/vocation leadership within the faith community and its mission in the world.

The same website presents eight key factors in faith development:

  1. Faith integrated into family identity and practice
  2. Three or more adult mentors of vital faith
  3. Three or more months service in the name of Jesus Christ
  4. Apprenticed early into leadership in their church
  5. Engaging, meaningful church experience in which youth are valued
  6. Excellent senior high/young adult ministry
  7. Encouraged by strong Christian friend(s)

8.    Support within an engaging Christian community during a personal crisis

With all this information and the anecdotal data available, the task of sharing God’s love seems unimaginable, but not impossible.  Remember Philippians 4:13:  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.  And as an educator, there are key points in each child’s education when changes can make a dramatic difference, possibly the most key time is right at the door when they first enter the school system.

Today, the question for each of us sitting here in this sanctuary is what can we do for the young people in our county.  There is a way to put God’s love into action now!

“Enough,” you say.  “We get the picture, but what does this mean for us right now, this very Sunday?”

The truth is that we cannot give up.  We have a job to do and that begins with each and every one of us in our church.  We need to adopt our children.  We need to look at the kids next door across the street or down the gravel road.  They need God’s love and we need to make sure it is working.  The tools are available to us, we just have to use them.

I propose that we adopt a school and/or a program.  For instance, Shawnee Mounds has a small community.  With all the economic challenges schools are facing, what can we possibly do to help?  Do we need to provide snacks for the students?  Do we need to offer a special ethics assembly?  Do we need to provide a field trip?  Or maybe we take a different approach—do we help tutor during the school day?  Do we volunteer our time and presence? Do we need to offer tokens of appreciate to a staff?  I think there are opportunities to put God’s love in action just as the school year begins, but more importantly throughout the year.

In an article found through the ERIC Digest Number 86, “Meeting Youth Needs with Community Programs,” the answer for change in our youth is in the community.  For years we have carefully separated ourselves as a Christian community from giving to the public education programs.  The truth is that right now there is no need to keep away from public schools.  The key is that we give without attaching any expectations or requirements to the gift whether it is a concrete or an abstract form of giving.

We are a community and in the ERIC article, several statements stand out because the community can have a profound impact on meeting the needs of our youth today.  Young people need adults to provide “a unified view of the requirements for social competence….the community in general, must create a facilitating and caring environment that demonstrates the importance of such caring to you.  …nothing seems to signal caring for youngsters so much as the helper’s willingness to give time regularly and predictably.”

The needs are here in our communities.  The young people have all too often appeared to be on the road to destruction.  They do not have direction.  They do not have role models.  And now, even the schools cannot meet the needs working in isolation.  The young people need to see the community “…caring about and meeting the needs of youth; (in so doing, the community preserves it(self) and institutionalizes it(self).”

As a Christian community we must accept our responsibility and we must show God’s love by putting it into action.  We need to identify the needs of our young people, find a program we can support, or provide evidence of God’s grace for these young people so they can grow in faith and in other behaviors that will lead them to adult roles that will preserve their own communities and teach the generations to follow.

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