Posted by: donnatallman | February 18, 2013

Changing the Atmosphere

Crooked Picture

Photo by Donna Tallman

Would I teach? Absolutely! Of course I would teach. I love to teach – anywhere anytime. I was happy to say yes. When the “senior pastor” (instead of the Sunday school superintendent) assigned me the 5th and 6th grade Sunday school class, I should have realized the picture was crooked, but I didn’t. I was clueless.

I bounded into my new classroom that first Sunday with all the anticipation and enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader at a state football game. Students slowly trickled in as I set the room in order. They barely spoke to me. I eagerly tried to engage them in conversation, but they only mumbled.

“Maybe they’re just shy,” I encouraged myself as any cheerleader would. “Give them time.”

Maybe not.

I was the fourth in a line of Sunday School teachers who had given up on this class, but the pastor hadn’t mentioned that to me. Richard was the one who announced it when he entered the room with his buddy, Timmy. I was equally unaware that hidden behind the cherubic faces in front of me lay sadistic mayhem just waiting to run amok.

I was new. I was naïve. I was toast.

Like the proverbial lamb to the slaughter, I turned to face my executioners. As soon as I closed the door to my classroom, chaos exploded around me. Instantly, the “shyness” they portrayed upon their entrance gave way to wild, unruly anarchy. Led by the king of mean himself (Richard), they were disrespectful, sarcastic and downright unkind to me and to each other. Particularly caustic were the brother/sister duos in the room who took special glee in swapping mean-spirited barbs with one another. Within minutes, Richard’s younger sister was reduced to tears by his taunt about her hair so she ran to the bathroom to cry.

Pandemonium reigned. Most of the students didn’t want to be there in the first place, and it wasn’t long before I agreed with them. They were so horrid I began to wonder if God Almighty could even redeem this mess.

He could. Of course he could, but how?

*     *     *     *     *

Jesus was a master teacher. He was also a master of changing the conversation, people’s perspectives, and the atmosphere around him. How Jesus handled his cynics provides great encouragement to me when the environment I am stranded in gets discouraging, sorrowful, or even caustic.

The woman caught in adultery is one of the best examples in the New Testament of Jesus intentionally changing the atmosphere around him. It’s recorded in John, chapter 8. A hypocritical mob of Jewish leaders brought an adulterous woman to Jesus for judgment while he was teaching in the temple. Figuring that Jesus’ grace would outweigh his scriptural justice, they intended to trap Jesus by setting the woman up and then dragging her before him to be condemned. Had he condemned her, her sentence would have been death by stoning.

Jesus not only didn’t fall for their malicious scheme, he completely upended the emotionally charged atmosphere instead. Here are some principles I pulled out from John 8 that might help when we find ourselves in negative environments:

Jesus prepared his heart

Desert Sunrise

Photo by Donna Tallman

Jesus started his day on the Mount of Olives. (John 8:1) The Mount of Olives was a place of refuge for Jesus, and he often went there to be alone or to pray. Before Jesus was accosted by the leaders in the temple, he had already spent time alone and prepared his heart for the encounter.

Am I careful to guard my heart from invasion and feed my own spirit?

Jesus discerned the motives of the woman’s accusers

Jesus could tell instantly that the men in the courtyard were complicit in the woman’s sin. John 8:4-6 records their accusations followed by, “but Jesus.” Rather than allow himself to get entangled with their ruse, Jesus instead confronted their hypocrisy.

Do I stop and ask God for his wisdom when I am confronted with a hostile or unsupportive environment? Could it be said of me “This situation was deteriorating, but Donna?”

Jesus didn’t respond “in kind”

When the men maliciously accused and condemned the woman, Jesus remained silent. They were looking for a fight, but Jesus suddenly went mute. Instead, he knelt down and began writing in the dirt. (John 8:6) The challenge of discouraging or rage-filled environments is to not react. We need to “choose” our response instead of just spitting back the same emotion directed at us. Jesus controlled his emotions and intentionally responded rather than reacted.

Am I able to control my emotions so that I respond wisely, or do I just react by instinct?

Photo by Donna Tallman

Photo by Donna Tallman

Jesus’ response forced the accusers to look inward

The exciting thing about learning how to change an environment is to measure the impact personal attitude change has on the community at large. Private, personal accountability will always positively impact a group. (John 8:9)

Does the wisdom I exert in a situation compel others to better themselves?

Jesus acknowledged the reality of the woman’s sin without condemning her himself

Once Jesus eliminated the malicious threat to the woman and the men departed, he was able to address the legitimate concern of her adultery. Changing the atmosphere sometimes requires that we remove hostile accusers so we can breathe freedom into the lives of those who desperately need it. The men were accurate in their charge that she had committed adultery, but Jesus could not deal with the woman in love as long as the men spewing hate were present.

Is love my motive for addressing sin, or is it revenge and/or condemnation?

Jesus changed the atmosphere from:

  1. Arrogant entrapment to personal conviction for the men
  2. Hostile condemnation to compassionate redemption for the woman

There are lots of examples in the New Testament of Jesus changing the atmosphere in his environment. In Mark, chapter 5, a synagogue official begged Jesus to heal his daughter, but she died while they were on the way. Scripture records Jesus’ impact on her funeral by telling the mourners the daughter was only sleeping. Their laughter was quickly turned to awed fear when Jesus raised the little girl from the dead. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John, chapter 2, provides yet another episode from the New Testament when Jesus would not accept the status quo and intentionally reordered the atmosphere around him.

We have the power to do the same.

Photo by Donna Tallman

Photo by Donna Tallman

Last week on Valentine’s Day I had a list of errands to run before yet another snowstorm set in along the Rocky Mountain front range. We decided to have a party for the other hotel guests where we are living so I was in a hurry to get goodies and soda for the party. On my way through the Walmart parking lot, a 30mph gust of wind grabbed my shopping cart and yanked me down the hill with it. As I fought back and steered my wayward cart back to my car, a woman just across the way was caught in the same vortex. As she tried to load her own Valentine’s Day treats into the back of her car, the wind sucked two bottles of her soda out of the back of her car dashing one of them to the ground. That bottle exploded on impact while the other bottle rolled toward my car.

As I retrieved the bottle and returned it to her she said, “It’s going to be one of those days.”  Her frustration had already started to spiral out of control and she was sure things would only get worse. Since I’d already been thinking about how Jesus changed the atmosphere that morning, I ran back to my car, pulled out a bottle of soda I had just bought, and gave it to the woman as a replacement. As she began to protest, I heard myself say, “It’s Valentine’s Day and you’re on your way to a party. You absolutely can’t have this kind of day; I forbid it.”

I’m not usually so bold, but I just hated to see her emotionally beaten by a Colorado windstorm. Instead, I wanted to change the atmosphere of her day so God would have a platform to speak to her. He wanted her to know she was loved, but she’d never hear that in the midst of her frustration. Reordering her environment opened her heart to all God had for her…I could see the change on her face.

*     *     *     *     *

Every class I’ve ever taught has had a “Richard.” Richard is that brash, cocky, self-appointed class leader. Underneath he is often a spiritual cynic who dares me to teach him something, or (God forbid) change him. No matter how many long hours of study and preparation I put in, a Richard can wreck havoc on any lesson I teach with little to no effort on his part. Contending with him can be my worst nightmare or my greatest triumph. The key to limiting Richard’s impact on an entire class is to win him over. I have found that if I can win the cynic, the atmosphere immediately changes and the entire class follows.

Photo by Donna Tallman

Photo by Donna Tallman

How did I win my first Richard over? I gave him a camera and made him the Sunday School class reporter. He started a class journal that included photos and all the doodling he used to do to distract those around him. I made him wrestle with the topics we were studying in class as he wrote his articles for the journal. Then I published his work for everyone to see. Instead of getting laughs and riots from other students and Devil stares from the teacher (me!), Richard gained faith for himself and earned the respect of us all. Consequently, he became one of my greatest cheerleaders.

How does God want you to change an environment today? What can you add to it? How can you come alongside someone who needs a boost?

© Copyright, 2013 by Donna Tallman.




  1. Very well done. Love is kind.

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