It began in a routine manner: into the third week of the course, and with a semester or two behind them, the 60-plus students quickly settled into their seats. I wasted no time getting started. About halfway through class, a tall young military reservist student, seated near the center of the room, abruptly stood. He appeared argumentative, causing me to silently puzzle, “What’s he standing for?”
Suddenly, with no introductory preamble, this student swore loudly and at me, emphatically proclaiming that I and the concepts under discussion were incomprehensible. Stunned into jaw-dropping silence, I struggled to get a grip as he gathered his books and stormed out of the room. Although relieved by his exit, I knew I still faced the dreaded task of addressing the unacceptable outburst. With effort, I refocused on the class topic. Thankful to reach the close of class, I headed to my office.
Leaving my door slightly ajar, I sat at my desk ruminating over what had happened, trying to determine the best way to address it. A knock at my door interrupted my contemplation.
“Yes. Come in,” I said. Slowly, the door opened and framed by the doorway, looking anxiously vulnerable, stood the young reservist. Quickly pulling himself to stiff military attention and formality, he addressed me, introduced himself, and respectfully offered his remorseful apology. His classroom behavior, he said, had been unbecoming to the uniform he proudly wore; the disrespect shown to me had violated what his mother had tried to instill. It seemed clear that what he stood for in that moment was the very thing the psalmist declared:
“The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Psalm 51:17, NLT).
Readily accepting my student’s apology, I invited him to sit down and suggested we explore what he had found so confounding in class. Further discussion of the baffling theories led to understanding which pleased us both.
I later discovered that his outburst and subsequent apology were not limited to my class; a similar episode (sans the swearing) had occurred earlier in a colleague’s. More importantly, having productively processed the episodes, his demeanor had notably changed and he was emerging as a competent, eager helper. Other teachers and I noticed this recurring scenario: spotting a perplexed classmate, he would quietly volunteer assistance. With patience and remarkable clarity he would explain – often it was something he had initially found exasperating.
A Change in Character
Over subsequent years, both as a student and graduate, helping others understand the seemingly inexplicable became his hallmark. Paul’s counsel seemed to direct that for which he stood:
“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians. 4.29).
That was no small accomplishment. His background made developing the reflexive use of swear words easy. Growing up in a coal mining community where struggles against the harsh realities of life were ongoing, he was often surrounded by language heavily laced with profanity. Reliance on alcohol to face the constant danger, and the pain and losses sustained in the mines, frequently exacerbated the coarse language; the frustrating sense of limited vocational options also factored. Following high school, he joined the military where, often, swearing was expected and obscenities flowed freely. But something directed him to follow Paul’s exhortation, molding him until he stood for this:
“Don’t be so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without thinking. Instead fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you always dragging you down to its level of maturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12.2, The Message).
Tipping the Balance
During my student’s final semester he enrolled in another of my classes – a mutual pleasure; intelligent, perceptive and empathetic, his observations and analyses were insightful. Another teacher noted, “Yes, he had some rough edges but he also has a tender, generous heart; the balance has strongly tipped to the latter.” The directional change to his passion was reminiscent of Saul of Tarsus. Both men stood for the effects of willingness to be open to God’s grace, to grow in it, to extend it to others.
Lorraine Beaven writes from Ohio.
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