December 18, 2020
By Walter Fenton
I will never forget my favorite grade school teacher, Mrs. Maxey. She taught gym class. No one called it physical education – that would’ve ruined it. It was just gym.
And at my grade school Mrs. Maxey was the one and only gym teacher. Class by class, 1st – 6th grade, would get rotated through her classroom – the gym, the playground, or the park. She taught us to play foursquare, shoot a basketball, climb a gym rope, and do pull ups among many other things.
Mrs. Maxey was a gym teacher’s gym teacher. She wore gym clothes all the time, but always very neat, very professional gym clothes. She looked very much the part. And to top it all off, she always had a whistle and a stop watch hanging around her neck.
I particularly loved her stop watch, which she used regularly. She’d say, “Today we are going to see how many jumping jacks we can do in a minute or how many pull ups we can do in 30 seconds” (alas, precious few for me). Or we’d all toe up on the starting line for the 600 yard run. She’d blow her whistle, click her stop watch, and off we’d go.
When 5th and 6th grade rolled around she made little charts she’d hang on the gym wall where we could check our progress (a little embarrassing at times, but also a motivator). Mrs. Maxey seldom emphasized being competitive with one another, and she would not tolerate making fun of the efforts of others. She pushed us to out-do ourselves. Could we do two or three more pull-ups (unlikely), eek out another inch in the long jump (possibly), or shave off a few more seconds in the 600 yard run (yeah, I think so)? Those were real challenges, and over time we enjoyed being tested, tried, and judged by Mrs. Maxey. She was always pulling for us and wanting us to experience the joy of doing better. She gave gym class purpose and meaning.
And then, in early June 1974, our final day of grade school rolled around. We had a vague sense life would be different next fall when we started junior high school, but we were so excited about the last day of grade school that we weren’t giving it much thought – until we filed into our final session with Mrs. Maxey.
She instructed all of us awkward sixth graders to sit on the gym floor, cross our legs, and quiet down, which we all did without complaint. And then she gave us one of the best and most sincere talks I had ever heard then or since. She was perhaps the first adult to treat us like the little young adults we were becoming. As she spoke, we sensed she was worried about us, which seemed very kind, but unnecessary. (We all learned later, one way or another, there were plenty of reasons for worry.)
I do not remember her brief speech verbatim, but it ended something like this, “Remember to do the right thing for your own sake. And if you can’t do the right thing for your own sake, remember me, and do it for my sake.” She could say that to us in all seriousness because she knew how much we all liked her. But those were not her last words. She actually finished by saying, “And if you can’t do the right thing for your own sake, or for my sake, then do it for God’s sake, who I believe will always be watching over you.”
That was a stunner. For six years Mrs. Maxey had been our good gym teacher, nothing more and nothing less, but except for a hug and a “goodbye” as we solemnly filed out of the gym, those were her last words: “do [the right thing] for God’s sake, who I believe will always be watching over you.”
During the Advent season the Church has had a long tradition of reading passages not just about the promise of Christ’s first coming, but also about his glorious second coming as our judge. Since Christ is our savior and redeemer as well, he is unlike any judge we will ever know. He is on our side, before us, beside us, and behind us. And in his care and concern for us, he challenges us to be his joyful and obedient disciples.
We should be glad that he does. In our culture, where lately it seems the greatest sin is to be called-out as intolerant and judgmental, we need to be reminded how important it is to make judgments and be judged ourselves. Too many of us are perhaps overly fond of citing Jesus’ words, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” and pretending as if it neatly sums up everything he ever said. In our heart-of-hearts we know we’re often jerking the verse out of context to avoid giving offense to others, or more likely in the vain expectation that our feigned graciousness towards others will excuse our own sins.
Jesus reminds us of the goodness and even the necessity of our being judged. Our faith, our actions, our joys, our trials, and even our suffering somehow have meaning and purpose in the one who saves us and judges us.
Let us be thankful that Jesus is coming into the world, not just as the baby in the manger, but also to be our judge and the judge of the world. We could not hope for a better one.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.