Monday with Michael Spencer: October 14, 2019
Trusting the Father?
Yesterday, I experienced the great part of being a teacher; one of those experiences that make all the others worth it.
It was in my advanced placement English IV class. Our brightest seniors. I’m fortunate to be able to work with them.
A few days before we’d taken our final exam, and with two days left in the quarter, I decided to show the 1989 Peter Weir movie, Dead Poet’s Society, featuring Robin Williams in one of his finest performances, and then write an essay.
It’s the late 1950s, and conformity is in the air at little Welton Academy, a college prepatory boarding school where Mr. Keating has been hired to teach senior English. Keating tosses the boys some high-grade existentialism and budding beat philosophy along with an adolescent love of romantic literature. The effect of Keating’s mentoring on his young charges is explosive, with results varying from the revelatory to the tragic.
If you haven’t seen the film in the last twenty years, then prepare for a spoiler. One of the boys, Neil Perry, has been ordered by his compulsively authoritarian father to become a doctor. Neil has little reason to resist until the acting bug bites and, against his father’s express wishes, he plays the part of Puck in a community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His father is furious and pulls Neil out of Welton with the intention of sending him to military school.
His first night home, Neil commits suicide.
I asked my students to write Neil a letter, assuming that he would read it before killing himself. I’ve done this assignment before, but this time I asked the students to read their letters before the class, with one student designated as a responder.
Predictably, all of the students advised Neil, among other things, to wait till he was 18, then do whatever he wanted to do, no matter what his father wanted for him. The point was getting out from under the authoritarian father and doing whatever you most wanted to do in life.
It was a good assignment and we had a good discussion. Then I asked Kim Kwan, one of my Korean students, to read his letter.
We have a lot of Korean students. They are, in the main, some of our hard-working and most successful students. I’m fascinated by the process they are part of as they bridge two cultures. This is particularly obvious on the subject of the value of education, as we were about to learn.
Kim very matter of factly told the class that Neil should obey his parents and become a doctor. Kim said that Neil’s parents had sacrificed for him and they loved him. His greatest happiness should be in doing what they wanted him to do in life.
My American students were stunned, to say the least.
Further, Kim said he related to Neil because he had wanted to be in the hotel industry, but his family wanted him to be a dentist. Without any of the expected bribery, his parents simply told him that he should be a dentist, and he changed his mind and vocational direction. His parents, he said, were willing to work hard and sacrifice so he could become a dentist, and he beleived their wisdom was best for him. He could make many persons’ lives better as a dentist, and he might even make enough money to buy a hotel. It might be difficult sometimes to make this choice, but it was the right decision and the way to the most happiness.
He trusted his parents, and he wanted to honor them.
The reaction of our students — and my own — was fairly predictable. We simply would never go this far. In fact, I have doubts, as a Christian, that anyone should go this far, though I have no problem with using as much influence as possible to keep a student in school and in a position to make a choice of careers based on a degree and an education.
But deciding for them? Like an arranged marriage? Believing that I know what my son or daughter should do with the rest of their lives? I’m not that competent. My own feelings about freedom are mixed in with my desire to be a good parent. In the end, I support my children’s decisions about vocation.
But I’m also an American. I’ve never believed that self-sacrifice was all that great an idea. My students and I are hard-wired to avoid difficult choices that might be less than what we wanted at the time. Why can’t we all do what we want as much of the time as possible? Why trust anyone when you can follow your own dreams and desires?
Kim was telling us that, in his worldview, doing what he wanted was not the way to happiness. Trusting his parents was the way to happiness, even if it meant sacrifice, suffering, an uphill struggle in a career that wasn’t his first choice.
Honoring his parents was more important to him than doing what he wanted to do.
We wanted his parents to make their happiness dependent on letting Kim do whatever he wanted to do.
Yes, that’s where I’m going.
I thought about it all day.
I should trust and honor God. I should trust his choices that are not my first choices. I should trust the sacrifice he has made for me. What further proof do I need that he is for me and wants what is best for me?
Why do I assume that the Gospel is all about a God who makes my happiness and a guarantee of my choices his greatest concern? Why do I assume that discipleship is a process where I will always get what I want, the way I want it, when I want it?
Why do I think that the way chosen for me by a loving Father can’t possibly be that path of sacrifice; that path of difficulty?
Why does what Kim Kwan is saying sound so strange to me? Why does it sound so unlike the way I want God to be?
Why does it irritate me that he trusts his parents so much?
Today, I was the student and my Korean friend was the teacher. I’m not signing up for the superiority of this way of being family, but I see the beauty of it as well as the weaknesses. What I see most clearly of all is what Ravi Zacharias called “the imprint of the Father” on the human soul; the deeply imprinted fingerprints of a time when we trusted God more than we trusted ourselves. The deep imprint of what it means to be made in such a way that you know your happiness and your own choices are not the ultimate path to joy.
The shadow of the cross that lies at the heart of the Father’s love; the cross that made Paul say “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”