What matters most?

Viewpoint: A young teacher faces the challenges of her students and her church

Yvette J. Norcott is the English teacher for grades 9-12 at Orange-wood Seventh-day Adventist Academy, Garden Grove, California.

We may have a dance at our Adventist school! We have voted in our faculty meeting to send a proposal to our school board to allow our students to plan a supervised dance.

Perhaps this will shock many who have been brought up to believe that dance is wrong. Many of us have been told for years that the Old Testament dancing was only "unto the Lord" and/ or cultural. Or that we are living in a "different" time and there is the constant challenge to keep up and keep balance.

Before throwing down this article, try to imagine the incredible responsibility of being a faculty member of a school supported by fifteen constituent churches all with varying opinions, an institution made up of teenagers with equally strong viewpoints, not to mention the parents who pay good money for Christian education. If you have been in some position of leadership within the Church you can relate to this kind of dilemma.

It is so easy and so human to jump into criticizing the decision of a neighboring school or church. As human beings we are constantly changing, desirous of progress, yet we are all creatures of habit and tradition. It is astoundingly difficult to try and make sensible decisions, while at the same time endeavoring to genuinely respect the sincere beliefs of the constituency and stand for principle and truth.

As an academy teacher I often have the privilege of being, as they call it, "invited" to serve on various auxiliary committees. Accordingly, a few months ago I received an invitation to be part of what was called a dress code committee. I quickly realized that the "school dress code" was a kind of euphemism. The real agenda, the greater part of the concern and discussion centered around the locally hot issue of wearing or not wearing jewelry.

To my surprise, I found this particular group to be quite stimulating. There we sat around a square made up of four tables each the size of those used for the typical fellowship dinner. We were made up of an equally divided group of pastors, teachers, parents, and students, evidently chosen to represent varying interests and opinions. I highly recommend a similar experience to anyone who feels passionately on any controversial issue in the Church. There is nothing like sitting amidst a group of sincere Christian people with strong, yet differing, opinions.

There were people on the commit tee who were honestly concerned, based on the recent Value Genesis survey. These people had in fact spoken with a few of our students. They were troubled that young people are leaving the Church because church entities are enforcing such "dead rules" as "no nonfunctional jewelry." Though you may not have agreed with their view, you would not have been able, I think, to doubt their sincerity. At the same time, of course, there were other equally sincere committee members who wholeheartedly felt convicted that wearing jewelry is simply wrong and that we are doing our students a serious disservice by allowing them such attire. I believe that if you had been there you would have been convicted that these people were just as sincere in their views and motives.

A changing church

Again, whether we like it or not our world, and thus to some extent our Church, is changing before our eyes. Although change is frightening we must find just and helpful ways of relating to it. Because of the change, we feel the need to "progress," and that without being unnecessarily dictated to by the rules of our ancestors and the approaches that were suitable to their societies. On the other hand, by quickly deciding that the rules are the problem, and adjusting them, are we not in essence doing the very same thing— making the rules themselves the issue? Whether we are for particular rules or against them, when the rules them selves are made the central issue, we tend to become rigid, inflexible, and adamant, regardless of which rules we happen to favor.

We need to get at the heart of the matter. Do we actually believe that if we give the students all their demands right now, in the next Value Genesis study there will be fewer young people leaving the Church and there will be more satisfied members in our churches? I, for one do not believe that. We will never have consensus on everything. It is the characteristic of the adolescent to question boundaries.

We the liberals. And, we the conservatives. I wish we could simply throw out those terms, and say, we the people. The people, that is, of God.

What is the Church anyway? The Church is the people. And who is the Leader? Obviously it is Christ. He is our "Head." Until we reach heaven, it is essential that we remember that it is God who judges the heart. He judges the heart of the sincere Christian who is worried that we have frustrating rules that don't make any sense to young people today; He judges the heart of the sincere Christian who is not willing to compromise in favor of comfort or popularity. With that in mind, until He comes again, we've got to remember that and thus respect the beliefs of other people. We do not want to teach our students to be special interest, "cause" people, who band together with like-minded students and parents and force their issues. The more of this we do the worse things are going to become in the Church.

If jewelry and such issues are really dead issues, as so many claim them to be, then why worry? If we are raising a group of young people to respect God first, and the hearts of others next, and such issues remain "dead" issues to them, won't relevant change come to pass naturally? Why must we become all but obsessed with demanding our way if indeed such things don't matter? Change takes place through discussion, through the sharing of ideas, and it takes time, especially if we are to do it together.

What matters most

Oh, but they do matter, many say. Fair enough. But what matters more is that we actually love our Father in heaven, that He is the Father of all of us, that we have respect for each other because we are all children of God. If we are honest, warm, communicative, and open to one another, and if we at the same time teach teenagers to go about things with patience, that there is a right way of settling differences, that it is better to wait rather than offend hearts, then and only then will the next generation remain in the Church. Then and only then can we remain together as a Church.

I was raised not to wear jewelry, and it has not been detrimental to me to be without earrings for almost thirty years of life. When I was a teenager, to wear certain forms of jewelry would have suggested rebellion on my part. Symbols do matter and nothing should be so important to us that we come to the point of indignantly saying "I don't care what people think.. ."After all, the world is essentially made up of people, just people. At my first teaching job I would not have worn earrings because as a teacher there I would have offended too many people. It is one thing to speak openly of one's feelings, saying that some rule is "ridiculous," it is quite another to let it stand in the way of one's ministry.

I recently heard of a pastor who would not accept a call to a certain church because some of the leaders there would not let him wear his wedding band. Perhaps it is good that he chose to go to another church, but if one feels called to a certain place, taking off a ring should be a small enough thing to do.

If such studies as Value Genesis say anything it is that our focus on rules has caused us to lose sight of our goal—and here I am again speaking of a focus on rules, whether we happen to be for a certain rule, or against it. No matter how right we are, Jesus taught us that the rules themselves are never the path to salvation. We know that our interpersonal struggles over them are not the way to peace. "I am the way, I am the truth, and the light," Jesus said.

Perhaps rather than merely updating the rules, we should reevaluate the methods, the means and especially the principles. Maybe we should also be listening more to our teenagers, really listening. Perhaps we could be honest and not simply invent ways to justify what we ourselves do not in all honesty agree with in our hearts and souls. Perhaps we should simply admit that some things are traditions and openly explain their backgrounds and the reasons for their existence among us. Maybe we should learn to be more communicative and share openly when we also recognize inconsistencies. But along with all of this, one thing is certain, we need to communicate more warmth to our young people. Most of all, we should teach them that values are what matter, and that people are more important than things, for all of us have been created by God.

It is hard not to judge by what is tangible. It is natural to make assumptions. Let's be slow to judge the decisions made by leaders in different areas. Judging them insinuates that one has all the answers. We must continue to create an environment where people are comfortable to express themselves without feeling shut out. And in each of our individual areas, we can progress, while we are slow to make certain changes when they come to matters close to the hearts of others as sincere as ourselves. So what if we don't allow jewelry at our academy for ten years? We will survive, and as one Church, so long as we remember to respect the hearts of others. Then, together, we can look forward to an eternity in heaven where there will be no invitations to committees with difficult decisions to be made!

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Yvette J. Norcott is the English teacher for grades 9-12 at Orange-wood Seventh-day Adventist Academy, Garden Grove, California.

October 2000

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