This is a preview of the upcoming article that I wrote for a Hungarian Lutheran Pedegogical Magazine. I was asked to answer the question: What makes a school Lutheran?
I thought I would make the English version available here.
Read on for the full article:
My name is Scott Ryll and I have a long and interesting story within the Lutheran Schools in Hungary. I first moved to Aszod in 1998 and had the privilege of teaching there for two years as an English Teacher. I fell in love with many things: the school, its students and this country. I met my wife there. The rest, as they say, is history.
I returned this past November to answer a call to take on the English Speaking congregation at Fasor, and in January, City Park Lutheran was born. In the fall I will take on the role of International Ministries Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary. My goal will be to work within the structure of ministries, predominantly in Budapest, where English is being used, or could easily be used as a dominant ministerial language.
The road to landing on the International Ministries as a model for my time here in Hungary was greatly influenced by my return to the Lutheran School system during the second half of the academic year, this time to Sztehlo. This same road will take me into Deak, Fasor and back to Sztehlo next year.
Fourteen years ago I began to dream about how I might reach the students that God had brought me into relationship with. To challenge them to rise up and become the next generation of leaders in Hungary. The generation to go after their dreams and work hard to achieve all that they were capable of doing. Across industries and careers, to confidently go after their future.
I believed then, I believe now, that Hungary has so many strengths, so many opportunities ready to be pursued. Yet, then as now, I am wondering why are so few following their dreams. I saw a certain kind of apathy among my students then. Fourteen years later I wish I could say things have gotten better on that front. While I see a little less apathy now, I find that it has been replaced by something else. I hear my students telling me their only hope is to get out. To leave Hungary and pursue their dreams elsewhere. Every week since January I have been trying to challenge this idea. “Go abroad” I tell them, “but then come back with the lessons you’ve learned and make this the best place in the world to be.”
The problem isn’t apathy after all. It is hopelessness. They are defeated before they have even tried. Why? Because they are afraid to dream.
I think of my own children, citizens of both Hungary and America. Cecilia and I have, and will continue, to make sure that they know both of their homes. Both languages and cultures so that they have options. So that they may choose when they are ready and be equipped to succeed.
I will not accept that they can only succeed in they choose America. I will not accept that Hungary is a lost cause. I will only accept the challenge to continue to look for those ten, twelve, twenty students who will catch the vision. Who will fight to make their trade the best that it can be. Who will not give up on their country, their neighbors or themselves.
I have one simple proposal for all who read this: the incubator that will hatch this great generation will grow from an environment that cares for them. Challenges them. Does not abandon them. Sees past their struggles on the road to maturity. That dreams with them and then gives them the tools that will equip them for success. Helps them find confidence in themselves by treating them with dignity. That incubator could be, should be, part of our Lutheran Schools.
With that as a lengthy introduction, I should get to the task at hand. I recently met with a few folks to talk about taking my little project born at Sztehlo into Deak and Fasor next year. Some how the conversation turned to my comment that it seems we are looking for an answer to the question: what does it mean to be a Lutheran school? Since I opened my big mouth, I should not be surprised that I was then asked to write about it.
The truth is I have spent a few days now trying to answer just that. If I were speaking of America I could answer you straight away. But I’m not, and perhaps I have already stepped in the deep hole of cultural insensitivity with my opening remarks. I hope not. Please know that is not my intent. I do not wish the American dream on anyone other than Americans. I am interested in learning what the Hungarian dream is, and where I may, helping the students that God has once again brought me into relationship with, achieve it.
I attended a few Lutheran schools in America. A non-denominational Highs School as well. I’ve worked in several Lutheran institutions in America. None of that is necessarily helpful here because our two educational systems do not match in the slightest. More than this, I will not be so presumptuous to say that I have some mystical answer to the this question. To say that I have a quick fix at finding a Lutheran School Identity that is specific to Hungary and the students who dare not dream. I can only speak of the legacy that was imparted to me in those settings.
Furthermore, I am not a teacher. I am a good chameleon and am thankful for yet another opportunity to build relationship with students under the guise of “guest English teacher.” I am a pastor, a dreamer, sometimes too idealistic, a builder of systems and even a bit of a romantic at times when it comes to striving for bright futures. That said, I’ve not been back here long enough, nor am I absolutely qualified, to write this article! To definitively answer this question. Yet, I too am asking, “what does it mean to be a Lutheran School in Hungary.” For better or worse, I would like to search for this answer along with you, if you will have me.
Now for another story from this year. Sztehlo is on the front lines of this question because just a short time ago they weren’t a Lutheran School. Now they are. Transitions are hard. Organizational change and restructuring is a daunting task and I believe that Sztehlo’s leadership have been taking their duty seriously. The lesson is simple, sooner or later, all leaders must do something. That is, they cannot stop and think about it any longer, but they must commit to the decisions that they have made, come good or ill, and see the work done.
The take away lesson is even easier, no abstract answer outside of action will ever be able to adequately answer the question at hand. A uniquely Hungarian Lutheran School Identity will be born of the process of asking hard questions and then taking steps to apply the answers in real time. The solution that we seek will be born of trying, failing, learning and trying again, succeeding. Like life, like faith, it is a matter of formation. It is a process.
I am here as a pastor because I had teachers in Lutheran/Christian schools who believed in me. Who were able to look past my common student labels “smart, but lazy,” “underachiever,” “if he would just apply himself.” I had teachers who by the grace of God looked past all sorts of statistics and labels and saw me, personally, as valuable. I bloomed academically really late in my life. I got to that point because I had help along the way. I may not remember the specific details of lessons that each teacher shared, but I can name more than a dozen of their names off the tops of my head. I am thankful to God for each one of those teachers too. That they were my teachers to begin with. That they inspired me. Believed in me. Challenged me. Sometime pushing, sometimes forgiving, sometimes correcting but always loving me. My classmates. All of us who God had brought into relationship with them.
In turn I learned that it is important to inspire, believe in, challenge, push, forgive, correct and all out of love. To build relationship and honor my mentors by doing my best to mentor those whom God has brought me into relationship with. This is the legacy of my Lutheran School teachers.
Schools are places of education. Lutheran Schools are places of education too, but they are also something else, something more. Much of Lutheran theology is broken into either dynamic relationships based on tension or paradox. Saint and sinner. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of man. In the case of our Schools, there is another one: the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. We have one identity grounded in the Father by the work of the Son through the Holy Spirit. We are His children. He has given us everything. He has brought again into a relationship with Him, and it is sweet. We also have constraints and responsibilities to the state. Educational goals that must be met. Academic standards to aspire to. We must live in both worlds faithfully.
If the only difference between a Lutheran School and a Public School remains a few religion/ethics courses, chapels and the presence of a pastor (or two) then I believe we are missing the greater opportunity. We are missing the environment that will nurture our students in mind and faith. We are missing the chance to inspire them at the deepest level. Lutheran schools are not about numbers, goals and procedures that treat students as anything less than individuals. Lutheran schools are about real people that Jesus went to the cross for, rose for and will return to claim. Our Schools are about relationships at every level. The fruit of those relationships is where our Legacy as administrators, teachers and pastors will live on.
Hope that will change their lives, and the lives of those around them, is born of the Spirit. It is born of faith. Confidence in their own abilities will be nurtured more by a good relationship with a teacher that believes in them than just about anything else I can think of.
If you were to attend Divine Service at City Park you might hear me talking about serving our neighbors without expectation, without prerequisite with out demands. Granted, teachers should and do have the right to make demands of their students. My only question here is, by what motivation and to what end? To simply past the tests that will come? To prepare them for life? To equip them to work hard so that they can realize their dreams? To inspire in them pride in their language, culture, history by helping them realize that they will help write Hungary’s future? To plant the valuable seed of a relationship that will grow and produce fruit in time?
Step back to the theological dynamics of Lutheranism for a moment. Luther spoke of a habitus that included oratio (prayer), meditatio (meditating on God’s Word) and tentatio (living in the tension of life). It is tentatio that interests me here. Knowing the right thing to do takes more than head knowledge. It takes confidence. It takes faith. It takes values founded on a relationship with God nurtured in the day to day reality of those that we encounter face to face. This is not something that can be taught in any traditional way. It is learned through experience and born of the work of the Spirit among us. This is the incubator of our Lutheran Schools. This is where we offer ourselves freely to each other. It goes beyond just our relationships with the students and extends into our relationships with each other. We give of ourselves freely to one another because Jesus gave of Himself freely to us. Whatever He touches, whomever He touches, changes necessarily. Becomes something new. This work, God’s work among us, is done through our voices, our hands and our lives. Through our relationships. This is the heart of all Lutheran Schools around the world. It is His heart. It is a servants heart.
For me, I will continue to eat with my students. Talk with them. Try to inspire them. Both with the ones that I get along with easily, but especially the ones that make me want to pull out my hair.
Jesus ate with the low life’s. Hung out with the outcasts. Gave time and attention to those that “respectable” elements of society wished would simply go away. All of their hearts, their lives and their futures are precious. It does not matter if they will grow up to be beauticians or politicians. What matters is how they grow up. In the mean time, while we have something of a captive audience, will we be bold enough to help their formation and maturity to include values that reflect faith grounded in love unconditionally?
Make no mistake, we are teaching them values whether we want to our not. This is the great hidden curriculum of educational institutions. The subtext that has nothing to do about what we say but how we say it and how we treat our students and each other. They are watching, listening, evaluating, judging and sooner or later they will emulate some version of what they encounter. So let us equip them with the academics, life skills and values that will become the foundation of the generation that will change everything. The hopeful generation that is not somehow ashamed to be Hungarian. The generation that wants to make this a better place, in their own way by making contributions great and small that will help Hungary be all it can be.
A School is about education. A Lutheran School is about education in an environment of service marked by faith, hope and love. Administrators, this year, make it a goal to serve your teachers. Edify them. Give them the tools they need to work on the front lines of Hungary’s future in the hearts of its youth. Serve them. Teachers, lay down your lives for your students. Open yourselves up, especially to the students that you find the most difficult. Do not give up on them! When you feel yourself drained, turn to God in prayer and word. He will recharge your resources. He will gladly give you a heart to love them all. School pastors, take care of all those who work in the schools. Not just the students, not just the teachers and administrators but also those in the kitchens and offices. They are your charge from our heavenly Father. Listen to them. hear their confessions and offer absolution, be respectful of their dreams and their struggles. Do the work of an under-shepherd among them. Build them up.
For all of us, think of Luther’s rose. At the center is the cross that changes everything, where Jesus claimed victory for us all. Then think of the heart. The place where He dwells. In our hearts. Changed hearts. Think of the rose, the growth of new life. The seeds that are growing in the hearts of the youth in our schools. The seeds that are bearing all kinds of fruit in lives of those who serve the students. Try, fail, try, succeed, do the work. God who has begun this faithful work among us will go ahead of us. Work beside us and through us. Work in the fields of the students lives. Give them a legacy that will last long into the future. Know that I am honored to be working along with you. I thank you God for the work that you do.
Finally then, and for now, the question of what makes a Lutheran School what it is, must be answered in this: relationships. You are the beating hearts of Jesus in this world. The love and compassion you bear your students, and each other, will incubate the seeds that are planted in the lives of your neighbors around you. The fruit that will grow in time can nourish a confident generation proud of the country in which they were born. A generation able to pursue the Hungarian dream whatever it will be. A generation thankful for the people that God brought them into relationship with.