mess of mercy

We had four hours of class today. Though it was long, there were so many wonderful moments. We had a tea party complete with a few porcelain dishes, cookies, and bread with jam. Their faces lit up and voices cried out in excitement as I pulled the plates of treats out from behind the rolling blackboard. And after they were all distributed they looked at me and asked, “我们会吃吗?”(meaning, “Can we eat it?”).  One of the girls, Leslie, wrote on her little white board “Shelby and Leslie are good friends,” which made me so happy that I couldn’t smile big enough. We talked about how everyone is equal, and I asked them why. After some discussion amongst their groups, almost all came to the same answer: because we are all people. Only one group differed; they said, “because we all have parents,” which I guess is the same idea…? The students are wonderful, and I am so glad to be their teacher.

But that first paragraph is a disclaimer. Before you read the rest of the evening, I needed to clarify that I love these kids. But even so…

Class ended and 5:50 and they all rushed out of the room like a hurricane, hungry for dinner, waving, and shouting “Good-bye teacher! Good-bye Shelby!” And as soon as they left, I realized I was alone with a huge, huge mess.

Trash and chaos were everywhere: mostly empty cups scattered upon the desks, dirty napkins on the chairs and floor, jam smeared on the table, un-erased whiteboards and erasers strewn about, dry-erase markers left without their caps, and trash under every chair, none of which were pushed back into their place. I stood in shock a moment, and then decided to go have dinner. Food is better than tears, right?

But after dinner, the mess was still there. So I began to clean. On just the first desk, my annoyance quickly turned into exasperation, which then became indignation bordering on anger. I couldn’t believe what I continued to find: empty gum packages, snot-filled tissues on the floor, whiteboards written on with pen. How could they really do this?!

I’ve never laid down official rules for the class; I had hoped that the students would see they amount of good things given to them and be grateful enough to take good care of it. I had hoped that having a beautiful classroom would be enough incentive to keep it clean. I had hoped that they would be mature enough to take responsibility and initiative. Perhaps I had hoped too naïvely.

As I stewed in vexed irritation, I thought about what I would say next class. I was ready to sternly censure them, ready to ask them if they really wanted to be in this class at all. I wanted to ask if they were pigs, and follow-up with asking why they acted like it in the classroom. I wanted to tell them we weren’t ever having snacks in class again. I wanted to…

Suddenly, my mind remembered the Scripture I’ve been reading in Isaiah lately. Isaiah isn’t a very happy book – most of what I’ve read thus far is basically God telling of the wrath He will pour out on Israel because they have rejected Him. Isaiah is one of those books people might quote to say, “See, God is just a big angry dictator.” But in my current aggravated state, I caught a glimpse of what “wrath” is. And it scared me. What scared me wasn’t “wrath,” but it was how easily I became wrathful. After just one class with misbehaving students, I was angry. I was ready to hand out a healthy dose of punishment.  But God… God is:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7

This is God’s self-disclosure statement, the one place in the Bible where God tells us His name. And the first character quality that He tells us is mercy. And how true it is. Anyone who knows the story of Israel knows it is the tale of a people who reject, forget, deny, disobey, and provoke the God who responds with salvation, guidance, provision, success, and prosperity for hundreds and hundreds of years. God’s mercy is completely unwarranted. His wrath is completely justified, yet He withholds it. As I saw this evening, He withholds it far longer than I would.

Standing there in my classroom, I was overwhelmed by mercy. In my anger towards these students’ disregard for my generosity, I saw an absolute parallel of all humanity’s sin, of all my sin. I was dazed by the realization of how truly just His punishment would be. As I felt a tinge of the anger He feels toward sin, I was overcome by the fact that God actually took that wrath and poured it out on Jesus. Of all people, Jesus. The one and only person who pleased God in everything He did, who lived completely for the will of His Father.

Imagine if when I had seen the giant mess, I had been furious and stormed to dinner. Upon returning, imagine that I found a student just finishing tidying, dusting, sweeping, and mopping the classroom, completely voluntarily. And imagine that I then punished that student for the mess all the children had left by removing him from the program. Unacceptable, right?

But we are the disobedient students. We have indeed made a mess of this world. The message of Jesus is that the due punishment has been given, and we need no longer fear it. It’s scandalous. But it’s mercy.

This week, I will most certainly talk with the students about how we can become more responsible with our classroom. But I will speak differently because of Jesus. Because of mercy, I can forgive before I correct. Because of mercy, I can love. Indeed, “he who has been forgiven much, loves much.” Thank you, God.


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