5 Strategies for the Middle-of-the-Year Struggles

As schools enter the middle of the third quarter, things can seem to slow down. We are nowhere near the start of the year, but we aren’t near the finish either. Paperwork, grading, meetings, and other time-consuming tasks keep piling up. In times like this, it can be easy to become frustrated, worn down, or disenchanted. However, the middle of the race is just as important as the start or finish. Here are five steps to take to fight well in the long middle:

1) Remember your purpose. You are serving in a Christian school to point students to Christ. The students have just as many needs in now as they did in September. The newness of the year is gone, but the needs are the same. You are here to love them, point them to Jesus, and show them an example. Don’t get tired of doing good (Gal 6:9).

2) Wait on the Lord. You may have had big plans for the year. And many of those plans may have never gotten off the ground. Others may have not worked the way you wanted. But remember, God does not operate according to our schedules. While teachers love to manage our time well—with bells, quarters, periods, etc.—we must remember that, ultimately, time is not ours; it belongs to God. And He is not messing things up. He is not wasting this year. So be patient. Wait on the Lord (Ps 27:14).  

3) Seek his face (Ps 27:8). Prayer and Bible reading are keys to a vibrant relationship with God. Have you let these essentials slip as the year has continued on. Find a colleague to pray with. Lock into a meaningful Bible-reading plan. You can’t give the students something that you don’t have. We all need to be filled so that we can fill others.

4) Reflect on God’s grace. We are not successful because of our ingenuity or systems or effort. We are successful in ministry when God moves. Revival is when God uses ordinary means to bring about extraordinary results. Salvation is when God uses his gospel to bring dead hearts to life. Transformation is God applying his perfect power to our imperfect lives. Do you notice the theme of all these things? They are all the gracious work of God. Remember that.

Remember. Wait. Seek. Reflect. And finally, expect.

5) Expect that God will do a mighty work for his name and for his glory. As Asaph prayed in Psalm 79:9:

Help us, God our Savior
  for the glory of your name.

Christmas Confidence for the Struggling Teacher

Teaching in a Christian school can be hard. There are all the usual challenges of teaching (discipline, time-management, grading, communication, etc.), but there is something else too: the heavy weight of hard-hearted students. One of my most persistent struggles as a classroom teacher has been with lost students who see the gospel as old, boring, played-out, and dry. They think that, because they have heard the story often, it is normal for them to be innoculated to its worship-inducing effects. It crushes me that those who are quickest to yawn at the gospel are those who have never grasped the goodness of the gracious God who has offered Himself to a lost and needy world. It is hard to watch a starving soul push away the nourishing meal that is so desperately needed.

However, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,” (Rev 7:10). His ways are perfect and He is in control. 

David’s words in Psalm 18:28-30 are some of the most encouraging in the Bible:

You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
   my God turns my darkness into light.
With your help I can advance against a troop;
   with my God I can scale a wall.
As for God, his way is perfect:
   The Lord’s word is flawless.

Our hope is in God. His ways are perfect. They may not always seem perfect to me, but that simply means that I am not rightly or fully understanding what He is doing or how He is doing it. Isaiah 55:9 reminds me that his thoughts are infinitely higher than mine. So, when we see a student not grasping the goodness of the gospel, we must remember that God is working out his perfect plans. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and the Lord knows how to wield his power. He is not limited by our inadequacies. 

The Lord’s ways are not only good and right — they are unstoppable. Listen to the words of God:

Remember the former things, those of long ago;
   I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
   from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, “My purpose will stand,
   and I will do all that I please,” (Is 46-9-10).

He cannot be stopped! He never tries to save a student, but then fails to do so. God never fails. His word is power. For God to attempt something is to accomplish that thing. John Piper helpfully elaborates, saying,

The risen, reigning, King of kings and Lord of lords reigns over this world and over his mission with absolute sovereignty. Nothing is outside his sovereign will. If he meets with resistance, he either allows it for his purposes, or he overcomes it for his purposes. His sovereign purposes are never thwarted.

We see this in the Christmas story when the angel speaks to Joseph with these words: “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21). Do you see the promise here? “He will save his people from their sins.” There is no maybe or might. He will save his people.

But who are his people? The angel again answers — this time speaking to the shepherds — “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” (Luke 2:14). He brings peace to those He graciously favors. There is no stopping God from keeping his promise to save his people. There is no way for his favored ones to get away from his kindness. Remember David’s words?

Where can I go from your Spirit?
   Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
   if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
   your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
   and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
   the night will shine like the day,
  for darkness is as light to you, (Ps 139:7-12).

Of course, knowing that God is a gracious and powerful Savior does not make hard-heartedness easy to handle. But it does bring confidence to the situation. I can’t save my kids. But God can. And He can use any elements He wants to bring about that salvation. If He can use a census, a stable, and some shepherds, He can use the situations in my students’ lives too. 

It is a horrible injustice for his gospel to go unappreciated in the classroom (or anywhere else). However, I take joy in knowing that He is a God who has planned to use even the worst evils to accomplish his good plan. Think back on the crucifixion of Jesus. Acts 4:27-28 shows us that even the conspiracy of evil leaders to kill the Christ was God’s perfect plan: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

It was his plan from the beginning that his unjust death would justly save his people from their sins. This is what the angel meant when he spoke to Joseph. Even the most heinous crime against the Holy One was to be a part of God’s saving mission. He is so good! He is so strong! And just as the Lord planned to die for the world before He breathed it into existence, He chose to save his sons and daughters. Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:4-6,

He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

God saves his people. The Christmas story is clear: his name is Jesus and He will save his people from their sins. Those who belong to Him will believe in Him. We can be confident of that. And we can rejoice in the role He has given us in his saving mission. But why don’t all believe? If God’s missions never fail, why do some people fail to follow Him? In John 10, some skeptics came to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. They didn’t believe in Him, and the Lord explains why some people believe and some people don’t:

Jesus answered, “I did tell you [that I am the Messiah], but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:25-30).

I am so encouraged by the Messiah’s words here. His sheep listen to his voice. His sheep will have eternal life. His sheep can never be taken out of his hand. And the Shepherd made no mistakes in assembling his flock. Further, He makes no mistakes in using us to declare his truth.

God has placed us in the lives of students to be his voice. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15) We have have been sent to preach to them in and through the classroom.

So, if you are discouraged at the hard-hearts (as I am at times), keep telling your students the Good News. People are included in Christ when they hear the message of truth (Eph 1:13). Preach, preach, preach. God can replace the stone heart and bring life (Ez 36:26). And He can use you to do it.

And keep praying. John tells us, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him,” (1 John 5:14-15). Pray, pray, pray. Pray that God would save your students because only He can do it. We can’t save our students. Our students cannot save themselves. Only Jesus saves. Ask Him to exercise his sovereign power and bring dead hearts to life.

Christmas lifts up my heart when I am discouraged because my lost students sit un-enamoured by the gospel. God’s ways are perfect. God cannot be stopped. God will save his people from their sins. Glory to God, He brings peace to those He favors. And He uses his people to share his Good News. Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), but who knows but that you have come to your [teaching] position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14).

Thanksgiving and Biblical Integration

In Every Bush is Burning, I make the case that Christian teachers, among other things, should be incarnational. Simply stated, being incarnational means putting flesh and bones on the gospel for your students. Jesus, God incarnate, brought the perfections of God to earth when He came as a man. We can never do this as effectively as Jesus did, but, as his followers, we want to show the goodness of God in the clearest, best way that we can. We imitate Him.

The Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner and it should remind us to demonstrate gratitude to our students. Do they see us as thankful people? Christian education can be hard, but 1 Thessalonians 5:18 reminds us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

No matter how busy we are… No matter how tough a certain student might be… No matter how many other stresses we have going on in our lives… we are called to gratitude. Our piles of grading in no way diminish the reality of the gospel. When we allow our circumstances to dictate the level of our thankfulness, we are implying that our situation shapes our lives more than the gospel does.

It is okay to struggle.  Life is often hard. But let’s struggle while thankful. Show your students the power of the Good News through your attitude of thankfulness. Your integrated lessons will sink in deep when the ground has been saturated by your integrated life.

Cheesecake, Pie, and Biblical Integration

No one makes cheesecake like my grandma. For years, she would make a cherry cheesecake for me on my birthday. It was a highlight that made me excited for the next year to zoom by so that I could get to the next cool, smooth, rich cake.

My friend Ashley makes phenomenal pies and brings them to our church small group. These are pies that I rave about for weeks after having a slice. They are day-dream inducing delights that have the power to grow a small group into small church. They are nothing like my grandma’s cheesecakes. The two desserts have different ingredients and are made in different ways, but they are both blue-ribbon, gold-medal, Nobel Prize level foods.

Biblical integration is the same way. Two people can teach the same math class, but do in vastly different ways. And they can both be great classes.

The most important variable in biblical integration is you: the teacher. Every integrating teacher is coming to the course with similar (if not identical) tools. We all have the same Bible. We have the same Holy Spirit. We have the teacher manual and the textbooks. We have the same internet. So how is it that classes that bring together all the same resources can be so diverse?

A huge part of the diversity has to do with the unique way that God has designed us. He has given each of us different gifts, different personalities, different weaknesses, and different passions. And, in his wisdom, our Lord did this on purpose. A hot dog might be the perfect food at a baseball game, but it wouldn’t be fitting for a fancy wedding reception.

In Ephesians 2:10, Paul says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Your Lord has crafted you as a teacher specifically for the task of God-glorifying, student-impacting biblical integration. But please know that the way you integrate should be a little different than those around you. Not only is this okay, it is necessary. Yes, all of us should be doing some of the same things. For instance, every chef should keep the kitchen clean. However, there is room for diversity and uniqueness in how the chef utilizes that clean kitchen. There is room for your unique gifting at your school as well.

Don’t compare yourself to other integrators and think, “Wow, they are so much better designed for this than I am.” Yes, they may be doing things differently, but your goal is not to be better than they are. Instead, you are aiming to complement what they do. You can bake the bun for their hot dog or churn the ice-cream to go with their pie. If you are a Christian educator, you are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the work that He has prepared in advance for you to do. He didn’t mess up when He designed you for this. You just need to find out how to best leverage his design for his glory.

I love my grandma’s cheesecake. I love Ashley’s pie. They are different. They are wonderful. Different chefs have different gifts and styles. The integration you bake up for and in your class might not look like mine, but that is not only good, it is God’s intention for us. Be who He made you to be. Use the gifts He has given you.

Reflective Teaching and Biblical Integration

Yale University’s Center for Teaching and Learning states that reflective teaching is “a self-assessment of teaching, wherein an instructor examines their pedagogy, articulates reasons and strengths for their strategies, and identifies areas for revision or improvement.” As teachers, we are always looking to improve. We want students to learn and grow. We love it when things “click,” and when the “light bulb turns on.” We recognize that, even in areas of success, there is space for bettering our practices.

Since we are a few weeks into the new school year, I think that this is a great time to be reflective about our practice of biblical integration. If you can, carve out about ten minutes for a mini-reflection. I will guide you through it with three E’s–emotions, evidence, and encouragement.

First, concerning integration, examine your emotions: how do you feel integration has been going in your class so far this year? Have your students benefited from it? Have things fit well together? Is it rewarding to you? Has there been a moment or two that stand out in your mind as integration success-stories? The nature of your feelings about biblical integration this year should tell you something about how it is going in your classroom.

Next, let’s look to the evidence. Have your students engaged with biblical worldview concepts in your class? What types of integration have been the most thought-provoking, conversation-generating, or ongoing over time? Have you included biblical integration on any assessments (formal or informal)? If so, how have the students done with that? Has the Bible and its truth had a voice in your classroom on a regular basis? Or is integration only a once-in-a-while thing? If the evidence shows that students are engaging with biblical truth in your classroom regularly you are on a good track.

Lastly, let me offer you encouragement. When we reflect, it is important to let our reflection be broader than ourselves. We must note our situation, our task, and our King.

Teaching is hard. Christian education is hard. Biblical integration has challenges as well. However, Hebrews 4:12 tells us that God’s Word is active and sharp. God has given you an effective tool to use in the classroom. You can’t change a heart, but his Word can. But He hasn’t stopped there. He has done even more than that. He has chosen you for this task of Christian ministry. I love Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.” He can advance his gospel in any way He wants, and He chose you to do it. Why? Because it pleases Him. It pleases God when you make Him known through your subject. It pleases God when you represent Him through your attitude. It pleases God when use your classroom for his glory. Be encouraged if you identified areas of improvement in your biblical integration. Those improvements are simply future opportunities to worship God through our teaching. And they will please Him too.

Be a Leader Worth Remembering: Biblical Integration and Example

As a biblical integrator, you are speaking God’s Word to your students. In the classroom, you help them see that Jesus is Lord and that all things are his. Every Christian educator is a leader because we are leading our students to rightly see and savor Christ and his gospel in many different areas of life. And as leaders, our lives are meant to be on display.

Hebrews 13:7-8 calls Christians to notice the lives of their leaders, saying, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Students should be able to look to your life and remember the ways that you have taught the Word to them. Further, they should be able to see the outcome of the way we live out our faith and want to imitate it because the true Christian life is attractive. This does not mean that they see a cushy, no-problems life when they look to us. The author Hebrews points back to Jesus here to help us see. Just one chapter earlier, he called believers to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).

Jesus’ life was hard and painful, but it was aimed at the joy set before Him. We too might experience hard things in this life, but, like our Ultimate Leader, we are aiming for joy. Our students should understand how to follow Jesus because they see us doing it.

In Hebrews 13:6, we read: “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” Martin Luther answered that rhetorical question in the closing lines of his most famous hymn with a challenge:

Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill;
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever.

That is the kind of leader that students will remember and emulate. Why? Because that is a picture of the Christ-like leader. Jesus let goods and closeness with the Father go when He left Heaven to pursue us. He laid his mortal life down and allowed mere mortals to kill Him. He did this knowing the power and truth of God. He was confident that his kingdom is forever. Jesus has accomplished everything for us, and He calls us to follow his example. He is the Leader of leaders.

So how do leaders follow Christ? Verses 15-16 of Hebrews 13 offers part of the answer:

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

We give Him praise continually. We openly profess his name. As a biblical integrator, your course becomes an auditorium of worship as you point students to his greatness, goodness, and presence. And we put these truths into action when we do not forget to do good and share with others.

Students will not quickly forget a teacher who openly professes Jesus with words and follows Christ’s example with action. This is the kind of leader worth remembering. Will you follow Christ by being that teacher this year?

Five Steps for Understanding the Bible

The Bible is a book written over thousands of years on multiple continents in several languages by many people. It includes parables, history, prophecy, poetry, letters, and more. There is significant historical and cultural distance between believers today and those who initially heard the Word. These are just a few of the realities that can make understanding the Bible difficult. Since the Bible identifies itself as a sharp sword (Heb 4:12), it is necessary for those who read it to know how to handle it correctly. The following list contains five steps (and some follow up ideas) that can help you read and grasp what God says through his Word.

1) Careful Reading
Ask yourself, “Have I carefully and thoughtfully read through this passage? Can I sum up what the author of the text said in a clear/concise way?”

Tip: When reading, we are striving to understand the author’s intended meaning. When we comprehend what the author meant to say, we are on the right track.

2) Context
Ask, “Do I understand where this fits in the big story of the Bible? And do I grasp what was going on immediately before and after this passage?”

Tip: Never read a Bible verse… always read a paragraph at minimum.

3) Characters
Ask, “Who is involved in this story? Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to?”

Tip: When the Bible uses the words you, we, us, etc., we need to know who is involved. For example, in 2 Tim 4:13, Paul says, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” But we know that this is a command to Timothy, not to us today.

4) Consistency
Ask, “Does my understanding of this passage line up with the truths from the rest of the Bible?”

Tip: If our understanding does not align with the character of God, the nature of the gospel, or the greatest commandment/commission, we are off track.

5) Connection
Ask, “How should I act, think, or be in light of what this teaches about God, his world, and my relationship with Him?”

Tip: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7), so one of the best connections that we should always look to make is to improve our understanding of who God is. We will respond in a life of worship when we see Him for who He really is.

PS: Some people find it helpful to organize this under a three-step inductive approach:

I propose reading in three steps—information, understanding, and action.

1) Information: What does this passage say? Sum it up in your own words.
2) Understanding: What does it mean? Why does it matter? What does it say about God? What universal principles can be found here?
3) Action: What should I think, do, or be in response?

Mark Strauss recommends these four questions: 

(1) Where is this passage in the larger story of Scripture?
(2) What is the author’s purpose in light of the passage’s genre and historical and literary context?
(3) How does this passage inform our understanding of the nature of God and his purpose for the world?
(4) What does this passage teach us about who we ought to be (attitudes and character) and what we ought to do (goals and actions) as those seeking to reflect the nature and purpose of God?

Mark L. Strauss, How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 78-79, Kindle.