I’ve taught Continuing Christian Education (CCE) for about 10 years, give or take a year. During that time, I’ve taught pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st, and 3rd-5th grades. Each grade level is special for different reasons, but three years ago I realized that 5th grade is my super-fave-favorite. They’re old enough to ask smart, intelligent questions about the Faith, but young enough that they are still (mostly) innocent and carefree. Junior high looms large around the corner, but for now, these kids are filled with the confidence of being the eldest of their schools. They have a sense of their budding responsibility to be good examples to the younger kids, and they relish the opportunity to live up to the high expectations we set for them. Seriously. Fifth graders are the BEST age for teaching religious education. FIFTH GRADE IS MY JAM.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t connect, like, AT ALL, with the 5th grade boys. The girls and I get along well, because they’re more generally more mature and interested in spiritual ideas. Not necessarily so with the boys, though there have been a few notable exceptions. I have four brothers, so you wouldn’t think I would have trouble talking to these kids, and yet, I think I revert back to awkward-around-boys-5th grade Wendy and just fail miserably engaging and helping them understand how the study of Christ, the Scriptures, His Church, the Saints, etc., have any relevant connection to their lives. Until last Sunday. *mwahahahaha*We were discussing the Holy Trinity, and how St. Patrick used a shamrock to teach the Christian doctrine that there are three Divine persons in one God. The girls were listening with rapt attention, as usual, but the boys’ eyes were glazed over. I was losing them. Nope, I’d already lost them. The textbook gave a little background on the life of St. Patrick – about how he was kidnapped from his home by pirates, sold into slavery in a foreign land, and lived for several years among the pagans. He was continually tired, cold, and hungry, and didn’t understand why it was all happening to him. He was angry, but he prayed his way through it, becoming closer to Jesus and eventually praying over 100 times a day. He was later able to escape Ireland and head back home, where he was ordained a priest. In a dream, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to catechize them. Since he knew their language and was familiar with their culture, he awoke to the realization that God was calling him back to the Emerald Isle. The rest, as they say, is history. His efforts at evangelizing the Irish people were wildly successful, and thousands were converted. He won many souls for Christ and ultimately became one of the most beloved saints of all time. And also, we have him to thank for green beer. Amen.
I shared all of this with my students, but the boys still looked bored. I didn’t get it. We had covered pirates, kidnapping, druids…what more did they want? Suddenly, I had an inspiration, and asked them if they had ever faced adversity in their lives. They stared blankly. “OK,” I said. “How many of you have heard of Drew Brees?” Every male face in the room lit up, and hands shot up immediately.
Several years ago, I read “Coming Back Stronger,” the autobiography of Drew Brees. For those of you unfamiliar, Drew is the star quarterback of my beloved New Orleans Saints. The book chronicles his almost career-ending shoulder injury while quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, his subsequent release from their team, and his feelings of overwhelm, dejection, depression, and defeat. A faith-filled man, Drew decided to lean into the Lord and his plan during his trials of body and mind. During that time, he learned that having hope in God means trusting His plan and believing He’s never going to put anything in front of you that’s too hard to handle with His help. He advises we should be flexible enough to know when we’re being led in another direction, then follow that new vision with all of your heart. He learned, through his experience, that coincidence is usually God working anonymously. And then what happened? He was recruited by New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, and together they led the Saints to their first-ever Super Bowl win in 2010. Since then, he’s been an example of determination and strength on and off the field.
I shared Drew’s story with my CCE kids, then circled back to the story of St. Patrick. Suddenly, they got it. They saw, in these parallel stories set centuries apart, hard-won triumph over adversity with the help of the Lord – one on the gridiron, and one in the battle for souls. They saw how God sometimes allows challenges and sorrow to lead to opportunities to grow in strength and holiness. They got it. Just as important, I got it, too. In the past, I have sometimes felt a little weird as a girly-girl with a sports-loving side, but that day I realized that my interest in football and baseball could serve as a springboard to connect with the kids placed under my spiritual care. From now on, I’m going to be a little more aware of current events in the sports world to more effectively share with my kids. Maybe we should all ask ourselves if we are open to what God might use in your life to help us bring the Gospel to others.