Once a week, I co-teach Bible study for a group of middle-schoolers. (There are twenty of them, and half of them are boys. Ahhh, middle-school boys. Feel free to pause for a moment to pray for me and Teacher Jenny.)
Did you pray for us yet? (I’m serious.)
So, every other week, I’m in charge of “Wrap-Up”– which is when at the end of the day, we, well, wrap up the lesson (clever, right?). I’ll be honest and confess that I like the weeks when I’m not in charge of wrap-up, because
it is less work for me gives me time to just enjoy being with the kids. Anyway, this month we are studying 1st Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the new church in Thessalonica (the capital of northern Greece at the time), written about 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus.
Under Roman rule, the city was packed with Greeks, Asians, Romans, and Jews– a real melting pot. And as new followers of Christ, the Thessalonians were facing persecution as they tried to live holy lives in a pagan culture– does the great Temple of Aphrodite with its 1,000 prostitutes help paint a picture? Think cults, idols, Egyptian deities… and then there’s this new way of life, centered around loving others over yourself and doing the right thing, especially when it hurts. Living an unholy life was waaaaay easier than living holy–but followers of Christ were set apart for holiness and called to obedience– obedience to freedom, mind you, but freedom from the old way of life and the destruction birthed from sin. (Which brings to mind Paul’s letter to the Romans, also written while he was in Corinth: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”) Anyway, for these new Christians, temptations knocked on every door, window, you name it– and sin could look very appealing. Like a yummy frosted cake, you might say.
Which leads me to my Wrap-Up. I’m a visual person. I remember lessons more easily if there is something tangible attached to it. I love using props. Props are good. So when I opened the Teacher’s Guide’s and saw the suggestions for Thursday’s lesson, I was ‘all over it’ with excitement. The suggestion? To make a MUD CAKE. Sweet! (No pun intended.) When’s the last time I made a mud pie and had a teachable moment associated with it? So I followed the recipe, like a dutiful servant.
By now you might be wondering, “Why a mud cake?” The point of the cake is that It’s what on the inside that counts… the whole ‘book by its cover’ analogy. It’s tempting to live a life where you’re all goody-goody on the outside, and a fake on the inside. Or you’re one way on Sundays… and the other days of the week, not so much. Or where the life you portray to people is “all that”– but on the inside, you’re barely managing to hold it together. Or like Jesus said of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees–who were self-righteous hypocrites, wearing the fancy robes of the clergy and appearing as righteous men, but did not behave like people of God. He called them “whitewashed tombs… which on the outside appear beautiful, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity.” Ouch. (Leave it to Jesus to tell it like it is!)
So as I’m folding the water into the dirt and creating a nice mud consistency, I had in mind two or three boys who I thought might sneak a little bite before they were allowed. And once the cake had set and I was icing it with that thick cream cheese frosting, I could understand why. It’s just too tempting…
So as expected, all throughout class the kids were excited about this cake. They kept saying how good it looked, and repeatedly asking about it– and I explained that it was a rich, dense, brownie-like cake that we’d enjoy during Wrap-Up. Fast forward to the moment for which we’d all been waiting. Nineteen middle-schoolers ready for a slice of cake. Two teachers anticipating the outcome. First we talked about what the cake looked like on the outside. Then I handed one of the boys a knife to slice the cake into pieces, and I must admit… it looked sooooo REAL (even though my knowing eyes did notice the twigs and little clumps of leaves in a couple of the pieces). I placed a slice onto a paper plate, beginning to pass it around to the students– asking them to describe what the cake looked like on the inside. This was where I thought the lesson would happen– in just discussing how the inside was not what the outside appeared to be. As in ‘Ha, Ha, very funny, Teacher Shannon,’ yada yada. But I underestimated The Power of The Mud Cake. As I’m turning back to the table, I see out of the corner of my eye that one of the very boys I suspected of sneaking a bite… had snuck a bite– a sizable one at that.
“TRISTAN!” I cried out, “Are you eating that?!” His eyes widened, and his mouth stopped chewing. It was like time froze as we all stared at him, and he at me, and for a moment he and the rest of the class might have worried that the cake contained something created by, let’s say, a dog in the yard. As I’m saying, “It’s mud! It’s MUD!”, the other kids are howling. And Tristan disappears to the bathroom.
How’s that for a tangible lesson? Let me just say that Wrap-Up was a success that day…
Oh, but friends, it does not end there. How I wish it did. As Teacher Jenny and I are cleaning up, some of the other ladies from Bible study come into ‘The Homeschool House’, where they meet after we leave. The Cake has been moved over to a side table, out of my sight. I am writing on the board for next session, and Teacher Jenny is cleaning in the kitchen. She jokingly offers an older lady — the sweet choir lady, of all people — a piece of the cake– to which Choir Lady replied that she ‘just might help herself’. I, in the room with Choir Lady, laugh and say, “Oh no you won’t… because it’s MUD!” My back was turned, and I kept writing, but I noticed that Choir Lady was silent. She was silent because SHE WAS CHEWING. CHEWING MUD CAKE. At that moment, Teacher Jenny walks back into the room… and we realize the gravity of what has happened. We have to divulge to Sweet Choir Lady that she is eating mud, as we heap our apologies onto her. And then she disappears to the bathroom. Another one bites the dust. Er, mud.
So, there you have it. A lesson on being true to who you say you are. A lesson on letting your inside be what your outside projects. A lesson on how God does not want our holiness to be some fleshly, self-righteous, deceptive hyprocrisy. Instead, God wants our behavior to flow from our love relationship with Him– how through the power of His Spirit and with the help of others, we can live a more pure life. And when it comes down to it, it was exactly what God intended it to be: a lesson on “It’s what on the inside that counts.” I think Tristan and Choir Lady would agree.
P.S. Teacher Jenny summed it up perfectly as we closed the door that day: “And so, kids… Don’t be a dirtcake.”