So there you are. You have this great lesson planned. It’s interactive. It’s experiential. It conveys a significant point in a memorable way. Everything seems to be going along smoothly, when suddenly, one of the class members goes off script, balks at the very action that you’re doing, and attempts to hijack the whole situation, taking it in a completely different direction. What do you do?
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ experience washing his disciples’ feet to explore this question. And we’ll look at Peter as well. Here’s the story in question, as related in John 17.
During supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean.”
Oh, Peter. Couldn’t you just go with it for one hour? Because of course the very next thing Jesus does is provide a context to illuminate the action of washing the disciples’ feet, making everything incredibly clear. And I’ve got to tell you, this narrative would flow a lot more smoothly if only Peter had been able to hold his questions. But he couldn’t, and it gives us this great exchange that can demonstrate (among other more spiritual things) what to do when a lesson starts to go off the rails and one person disrupts the flow.
As I was thinking about this, it seems to me there are four main reasons why participants may interrupt a lesson.
1) They are bored.
2) They want attention.
3) They need clarification.
4) What’s happening is disturbing to them.
I’ll take a moment to look at each of these and what to do.
1) They are bored. Warning signs are listlessness and fidgeting. They may ask questions simply to shake things up. The bored person needs something to do. If it’s not that your lesson truly is boring, then find something that will keep that person busy and involved: getting more water to wash people’s feet with, for example. But Peter isn’t bored.
2) They want attention. People who want attention fall into one of two categories (in my experience): those who simply can’t bear not to receive attention, and those who, due to some circumstance beyond the classroom, are in need of attention. Those who are regular attention seekers will be known to you, and the best thing to do is not acknowledge them. Giving them attention will only encourage them to continue the behavior. Be familiar with the Shamu principle. But for those for whom attention-seeking is not the norm, you may want to say, “Let me just finish with this and I will meet with you immediately after.” Then do so. You may discover some significant situation that needs to be addressed. But Peter isn’t looking for attention. At least not primarily. (We all have mixed motives here.)
3) They need clarification. When we’re introducing a new concept or reinforcing a concept in a new way, we need to check when someone interrupts what we think is a beautifully planned lesson to make sure that our folks really are able to follow along. Have we skipped a crucial piece of information? Have we assumed they remember previous information that needs review? This is one where you may get lots of disruptions as people have questions about what’s happening. If so, you need to stop and back up, making sure everyone has the information or background they need in order to understand the current lesson. But Peter isn’t looking for clarification.
4) What’s happening is disturbing to them. Peter is disturbed by Jesus washing his feet. It’s completely uncomfortable. And here’s the good thing: when someone interrupts because what you’re teaching is disturbing, it means they’re learning. They are aware of the fact that this is new information that supersedes old information that they have been taught. This is not a problem. This is the best that a teacher can hope for!
“You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand,” Jesus says. And here is where Jesus teaches us something very important. For those being truly disturbed by what they are learning, we can provide compassion, but we can also rejoice. Because they may not get it now, but we can believe that they will. They got it that this is a disruption. And that’s a huge step towards learning. There’s no need to get mad. There’s no need to shut them down. You don’t need to ignore them. But you don’t need to explain either. For someone who is feeling unsettled and disturbed because they are learning, it's important to note: you don't need to make them feel comfortable! The fact that they are disturbed is an important part of the process. What this person needs is both reassurance and an answer that says, “Stick with it. You’re on the right track. You don’t know it yet. But you will.”
Blessings to you this Maundy Thursday. May you be disturbed as we revisit again the death and risen life of Christ our Lord.