Every morning when that phone would ring my stomach would twist into knots. I never knew what the day would hold. Would it be a classroom filled with well-behaved, eager-to-learn 3rd graders, or a pack of junior high school pre-pubescents lying in wait for me? That was my life as a substitute teacher. Although I was grateful to have the income during those two years, the anxiety of the unknown each day felt unbearable at times.
Of course what sticks in my mind the most are those bad days. I can remember having a small but dense wad of paper thrown at me by a high school student while the lights were off and he was supposed to be watching a video. (I’m pretty sure it was one of the baseball players.) I can remember an entire class of 5th graders playing a fierce-turned-violent game of “steal the pencil” as I frantically searched for lesson plans that the teacher had forgotten to leave for me. I can remember being called names behind my back, cursed at, and lied to about anything and everything. Days like those made me want to erase those substitute teaching experiences from my memory completely, but then I would remember those other moments that have stuck over the years.
There is one in particular that stands out above all the rest. I was substituting for a 2nd grade class and learned from the school secretary that there was a brother and sister in my class. She explained that they were not twins; they were about a year apart, but they had just moved to the United States from Russia a few weeks earlier. The girl, who was the 2nd grader, spoke a little bit of English but her younger brother (a 1st grader) spoke no English and was having a very hard time adjusting to his new life and new school. They thought it best to keep the siblings together until he could acclimate to his new surroundings.
As I watched them throughout the day, it was clear that this little boy depended upon his sister for everything. He was so scared. He stayed as close to her as he could and she patiently and kindly took care of him, translating what was happening whenever she could. After lunch that day I had several handouts that needed to go to every student. I played some sort of game with the class to determine which of the students would help me pass them out. To everyone’s surprise, it was the little Russian boy who won the game! His sister, with great joy, explained to him that he had won and that his prize was to help me pass out the papers. He was so excited! It was the first time all day that the fear in his eyes disappeared and he confidently and proudly walked around the classroom – without his sister – to complete his task. I think everyone in the class was happy for him and cheered him on, including me.
At the end of that day, his sister came up to me with a piece of paper in her hands. With just of few words of English she explained that she had drawn a picture and wanted me to have it. As she handed it to me, my heart melted. It was a drawing of an American flag. And, as you can see, even 20 years later, I still have it. It was so precious to me. Her gesture alone to draw me a picture meant the world to me. But then to have that picture be an American flag, something that clearly meant so much to her already in her young life, was just beyond priceless. She and her brother would be in their late 20’s now. I hope they are happy and well, and loving their life in America.
I have always loved to teach. I not only got to substitute teach for a couple years but I also had the opportunity to teach Old Testament to high school sophomores, various criminal justice topics to aspiring dispatchers, coach girl’s basketball, and teach members of the public about crime prevention and emergency preparedness. From the very first opportunity I got to teach I loved it. I loved the connection I got to have with my students. I loved watching them understand concepts, take pride in their work, and accomplish the goals laid out for them.
Although I always had the heart to teach, I also had to have something else when I became a substitute teacher. In addition to that soft heart, I needed thick skin. I didn’t have relationships with the students I saw for just a few hours on one single day, so I couldn’t lead with my heart. And, let’s face it, it’s human nature for kids to push the envelope when their regular teacher isn’t around. I needed to be prepared. I needed to go into those classrooms tough, guarded, patient, and able to endure just about anything. I couldn’t crumble under the stress or the insults mostly because I was the adult in charge, but there was another reason as well. I couldn’t crumble because there was more at stake. Those students, in spite of their desire to do otherwise, needed to continue to learn. There was a greater purpose for me being there beyond just keeping the kids from killing each other. The thick skin I needed to develop was to protect their opportunity to continue to learn and grow.
I’ve been reading the book of Jeremiah and in it God reminds Jeremiah that he too needs to have thick skin to go along with his soft heart.
Jeremiah was God’s chosen prophet to the people of Judah and Judah was headed for disaster. As a consequence for the people’s disobedience against God, they were going to be taken into captivity and Jerusalem was going to fall. Over many, many generations their hearts had strayed and then grown cold towards God and His direction for their lives. The time had finally come for them to experience the consequences. But God was not going to make it a surprise. He called Jeremiah to be His prophet and tell the people of Judah exactly what was going to happen to them. God gave Jeremiah the exact words He wanted him to speak and He also told him that the messages were not going to be well received. Essentially He told him, “They’re not going to listen to you.” Even so, Jeremiah had a purpose in God’s plan.
Jeremiah is known by scholars as “the weeping prophet.” He was a man of great depth. We see evidence of this throughout the book of Jeremiah as well as in Lamentations. Jeremiah had a huge heart. The messages God gave him to deliver were painful to him, not only because of their content but in their expression as well. Jeremiah did not want to see his people forced into captivity. He didn’t want to see the City of Jerusalem fall. But he also experienced pain from the very act of delivering the messages God gave him to deliver. One commentary states: “He had to learn not only to do without the sweet incense of popular favour, but also to stand unflinching even when it turned into the hot breath of hatred. He had to submit not only to be without friends, but to see friends become foes.” (Exell, Joseph S. “Commentary on “Jeremiah 12:5”. The Biblical Illustrator. https:https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/jeremiah-12.html. 1905-1909. New York.)
Throughout the book we hear Jeremiah cry out to God. Often times it is on his own behalf, wanting to see God’s justice and deliverance in his own situation. Although God always promised Jeremiah His protection, His response to his cries may not be what you and I might expect. In one example, God had just warned Jeremiah that his enemies were plotting against him. Jeremiah responds by asking why these wicked people seem to be so prosperous. In other words, “Why are they so happy and I’m so miserable?” In Jeremiah 12:5 we read God’s reply,
“If racing against mere men makes you tired, how will you race against horses? If you stumble and fall on open ground, what will you do in the thickets near the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5 NLT)
God knew the kind of man Jeremiah was. He knew how deeply he felt things and I believe that is precisely why He chose him to be His prophet. That beautiful soft heart of Jeremiah was to represent the beautiful and soft heart of God! But Jeremiah needed to have thick skin. He needed to see the bigger picture. That thick skin needed to protect the greater purpose which was God’s people coming to an understanding that their God loved them deeply and wanted them back!
When you read Jeremiah you can easily get caught up in the powerful messages of doom and gloom and coming destruction for the people of Israel. But why did God send that punishment? (Punishment, by the way, that was delayed by HUNDREDS of years of disobedience.) Because they were His people! They were His children and He loved them enough to exercise His just punishment for their sins against Him. That’s how much He wanted them to come back into a relationship with Him.
Jeremiah at times not only got caught up in the messages of doom and gloom but he also got caught up in his own circumstance. I can only imagine his loneliness, fear, and despair.
In Chapter 15, after another one of Jeremiah’s gripe sessions, God said to him:
“Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.’” (Jeremiah 15:19-21 ESV)
Jeremiah was in jeopardy of losing his anointing as God’s prophet to these people. Why? Because of his fear, his attitude, his complaining, his diffidence – his lack of confidence in what God had called him to do. God specifically chose Jeremiah to deliver these messages and He didn’t want Jeremiah’s bad attitude to take him out of that position. He wanted to restore him, to stand before Him as His prophet. But Jeremiah had to be able to separate the precious from the worthless. He had to sever the vile from the divine. He had to see the preciousness of his calling and the fact that the unique qualities that made Jeremiah who he was were the exact qualities that God wanted to use to carry out that calling. He had to separate his discomfort from the bigger purpose of God’s love being delivered to His people. He needed to develop thick skin.
In these verses, God also warned Jeremiah to not go after the people of Judah, but let the people of Judah come to him. In another version it says, “Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.” (NIV) Jeremiah could not take God’s messages into his own hands. He couldn’t be the one to punish the people. That wasn’t his role. His calling was to deliver God’s messages. That’s it. God already knew the people were going to reject the messages He gave Jeremiah to speak. It wasn’t Jeremiah’s job to get them to listen and be obedient. Jeremiah’s passionate heart had to be held within God’s boundaries of patience and endurance. Again, look at how patient and enduring God was with His people! Jeremiah had to reflect that just as much as the softness of God’s heart. He did so by having thick skin and by protecting his own heart from pursuing his fellow countryman to believe what God was saying through him.
There is so much we can learn from Jeremiah. The rejection of God and His direction for our lives is commonplace nowadays. We, like Jeremiah, may find ourselves in a culture that reflects an attitude and a way of life we personally don’t ascribe to. But also like Jeremiah, we each have a calling. That calling differs for each one of us and it may or may not be to be God’s spokesperson, as Jeremiah was to the people of Judah. But whatever that calling is, our purpose is the same: We are to display God’s love to the world that does not know that love.
Like Jeremiah, in order to fulfill that calling we need both a soft heart and thick skin. First, we are to be representatives of God’s love. Do you know His love for you? If not, believer, that is where you need to start. His love for you is deeper, wider, more grace-filled, and even more passionate than you can begin to imagine. As difficult as it is to grasp, you need to, so that you can put that same love on display for others to see and desire for themselves. Your heart must be soft; soft enough to take in His love and soft enough to want others -even those who profane His name or His existence – to know it for themselves.
Second, and equally important, we need to have thick skin. Skin that is characterized by patience and endurance. Skin that will protect that precious love and heart of God and not be so easily offended. Do we not see God’s patience with the world today? Do we as Christians not beg for His return? And yet, His delay is because He wants more to come to know Him first! He wants more to turn from their ways and come to know that precious Love that saves and restores, namely, Jesus. We must have that same patience, that same endurance, while keeping His ultimate goal in mind.
And third, we have to stay within our calling. We have to know what that calling is and appreciate and acknowledge the fact that we have been uniquely created to fulfill it. It may be painful at times to carry out, as it was for Jeremiah. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of it. It also doesn’t give us free reign to take things into our own hands and pursue something outside our calling. The heart of God, the preciousness of it, the audacity of His love for even His enemies, its display orchestrated through His people, is what will bring more into His kingdom. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t each have the responsibility to share our testimony with others. We most certainly do. But it does mean that if, for example, you have been called to serve as an intercessor or prayer-warrior, that you don’t suddenly pursue a ministry of exhortation on Twitter against your favorite anti-Christian target. We need to be mindful of our calling, obedient to it, and lead by God’s Spirit, not our own. Our job is not to change people’s hearts or awaken their spirit to respond to God’s love. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to do that. Our job is to fulfill our calling, deliver God’s love as representatives of His heart, and protect His overarching purpose of growing His kingdom with the thick skin of patience and endurance.
As painful as some of those memories of substitute teaching may be, I am grateful that God chose me to be the one to receive a precious hand-drawn picture of an American flag from a little girl still adjusting to her new country. I wouldn’t trade that experience of having a front row seat for God’s love to be exchanged between her and I for anything. Deflecting insults and spit wads only helped develop the thick skin I needed to protect my soft heart for precious moments like that one. I’m grateful for both.
Lord, give us a heart as soft as yours. Help us to see the world as you do and understand that even the judgment that will ultimately take place comes from a heart of love. Help us to grasp as best we can, your love for us so that we can be better messengers of that same love. Lord, in this culture of sensitivity and utter disregard for holiness, give us thick skin. Wrap us in the patience and endurance you have had for us! Lord, help us to guard your precious heart for people, that they may see your love in spite of how they may treat you and in spite of how they treat us. We love you, Lord. Show us our unique giftedness. Put us in tune with your Spirit that is inside of us that we may each clearly know the specific calling you have placed on our lives. Give us courage to live out that calling every day. May we not be distracted by any pain that calling may cause us to have but instead trust in your steadfastness and your protection. Help us to focus on our greatest purpose in this life. We love you, Lord. Give us your patience and your love so that we may display them to others who do not know them. Help us to endure until your return. In Jesus’ most precious name, amen.
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