Forming Character The Old-Fashioned Way: One Rock at a Time

“Snake! Snake! It nearly bit me!” Cristian, a very shy, gangly 12-year-old student who has been a shining star in our intensive two-week program, shrieked as he pulled his hand back.

His five male classmates and I immediately arrived on the scene, intrigued by the snake sighting.

The young men had obediently commenced that morning’s character-forming project bending over, grabbing rocks of all sizes and then pitching them over the chain-link fence (the fenced-in area around the four little buildings that constitute the Living Waters Ranch has rocks everywhere you step, so I’ve taken it on as my personal project to move them to the open pasture where they’re out from underfoot). As the boys began crouching and hauling, unearthing and slinging, I had casually warned my teenage comrades, “Be careful, boys. There’s a boa that lives somewhere around here. Hopefully the rock you grab doesn’t happen to be his favorite hiding place.”

They had looked at me, dumbstruck, several of them with a smirk on their face as they assumed I was kidding.

[Seeing as I participated rather enthusiastically in competitive basketball teams and year-round athletic training from second grade until my high school graduation, I have taken these two weeks with our students as a bootcamp of sorts. (And I’ve had a little too much fun managing that bootcamp.)

Two days prior, as we neared thirty minutes or so of doing the rather demanding activity of launching rocks, everyone drenched in sweat under the hot Honduran sun, I clapped my hands vigorously and barked out orders, “That’s it! You’ve done great! Now hustle up – we’re gonna go around to the other side of the fence where you’ve just thrown all the rocks, and we’re gonna pick ‘em up and throw ‘em back on this side!”

They had all frozen and swiveled to look at me – the first time they had actually shown any recognition of all the noise I had been making – and their jaws dropped open. One of the boys expressed everyone’s thoughts, “That’s a crazy person’s work! No way!”

I had bent backward, thrown my head back and let out a belly laugh before recovering my rigid coaching tone of voice, “I’m just joking, kids! Now get your butts inside and we’re gonna continue reading more chapters of Proverbs and work out the kinks of long-division! You’ve done a phenomenal job! Hustle up now! Teamwork on three!”]

So this morning I laughed as I looked at their faces, unsure whether I was joking or not about the boa. (Our 13-year-old daughter Jackeline was standing by giggling and nodding her head in agreement, for she knew we had seen the boa several times and, thus, my warning was legitimate.)

“Nope, this one’s for real, boys. Good luck, and keep a tight watch on your fingers. I’d hate for anybody to lose one.”

They gaped and protested. I laughed. “No need to worry, boys. It’s not venomous. The only thing to fear is its long fangs. Just a slight sting, nothing more. Now fling those rocks! Let’s put everything you’re learning from the book of Proverbs into practice and form you into wise, hard-working young men for God’s glory! Hurl!”

As I stood right there on the sideline, shouting incessant verbal instruction and lavishing on praise, my throat started to ache due to my extreme coaching style. Not a moment passed that I wasn’t yelling some edifying comment or specific instruction to those young soldiers-in-training.

“That’s it, Exson! Keep it going, boys! We’re developing a good work ethic in you guys so that one day you will be useful instruments in God’s hands! Great job, Charlie! What great strength, Arnold! Wow, you guys have great perseverance! Keep slinging ‘em one after the other!”

Arms extended backward like catapults as rocks soared one after the other high over the fence. Fingernails turned black with dirt and muscles were put to the test as larger stones were taken on one by one and heaved over the precipice with great exertion.

“You need to run from Point A to Point B! Have a sense of urgency, boys! You don’t walk; you run! Show me that you deserve to pass seventh grade! Let’s go, boys! Use your strength to serve God; dedicate your bodies to serve justice!”

As the young men picked up their pace, heeding my verbal instruction to run from one rock to another rather than taking an easy stroll, sweat pouring mightily down their temples, I continued in my edifying verbal barrage: “May God form hard workers out of you, young men! You’re doing such a fantastic job! Keep it up, so that some day you can serve God, be responsibly married and provide for your family with the sweat of your brow! Remember that no good woman wants to marry a lazy man!”

A couple of the young men who had shown no prior interest in any of my many loud verbal proclamations until my last comment, stopped in their tracks, stared at me, and then let out a slight laugh before they kept on running.

All of our students are very familiar with the book of Hosea (the prophet whom God instructed to marry an unfaithful prostitute so that Hosea — and all those who would then come to know his story henceforth — would know how God, forever faithful, feels with unfaithful humanity who is constantly wandering off to prostitute itself to Satan). Making the connection between my comment about their future wives and the Scripture that we’ve been studying for months, Arlen, a 15-year-old student who ran past me with a rather large rock cradled in his hands, glanced up at me and asked with a tricky grin, “But we’re not gonna have a wife like Hosea’s, right?”

I laughed and praised God in my heart for all these young men are learning about His Word.

So, in these first four days of intensive work with those students who throughout the year had become notorious for playing hooky, not turning in homework on time and generally displaying rather irresponsible behavior day after day, we have enlisted them in a military-style boot camp founded on God’s Word in a very intentional attempt to form these young men (and woman) into disciplined, wise youth who are rooted in the truth. (And we’ve loved every minute of it even if they haven’t!)

With tears nearly welling up in my eyes, we’ve seen lazy, unmotivated young men begin to be transformed into hardworking, positive young men who leave all excuses aside, roll up their sleeves and get to work diligently. Now that there are less students to manage (the academically solid students are already on vacation), we can address and correct bad work habits individually, take the time to go over basics that they should have learned years ago, and go at a pace that they can understand and take hold of. Heck, I think these four days of intensive small-group military-style training have been more helpful to them than perhaps the entire school year in the normal classroom environment with all the other students and general distractions.

So when skinny Cristian with his Mohawk and wide eyes jumped back and set off the snake alarm, we all immediately showed up on the scene. Undoubtedly their thought was: Heck! She wasn’t kidding!

As we all drew near, Exson, the oldest student in our program who turned 18 this year, took the lead and grabbed a stick. He valiantly began removing rock after rock as his young friend informed him: “Right there! It disappeared into the dirt right there!”

Exson poked the stick about as we all bent over, faces forming an elevated circle above the suspected snake location while we all held our breath. It has almost bitten Cristian.

A moment or two passed as our hearts beat faster. Suddenly two eyes and a small head burst upward from the soil with lightning speed as I instinctively let out a blood-curdling scream and pulled my head up and away.

Not only did it almost bite Cristian; now it’s gonna bite all of us! The boa wants vengeance! If, in fact, it actually is the non-venomous boa and not one of the many poisonous snakes that are also found on this mountainside! Who can tell the difference anyway? Everybody run for your life!

My hands flew up to cover my face as if that would protect my ankles from the attacking fangs. The boys, too, had jumped back in surprise and let out similar gasps.

Everything happened in a half-second blur of terror and adrenaline before it registered in my mind: Wait, that wasn’t a snake. It was a gecko.

A gecko. 

We all began laughing hysterically as Cristian, who is typically very reserved, grabbed his chest in relief and sighed in very dramatic fashion.

After the boys had a good laugh at my squealy reaction, I resumed by coach-like authority and commanded, “Alright, back to work. Twenty more minutes of intense labor until recess, and I must warn you to watch out for the geckos. They are, after all, the most dangerous of all animals. More dangerous than a shark, more menacing than a lion, the gecko, young men, is to be feared above all other creatures. Now sling those rocks over the fence and watch out for gecko fangs!”

Amen! Glory to God!

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