Teaching theology

I hav always loved the process of teaching and learning. I enjoyed being a student and I have enjoyed my role as a teacher in the church. At one point in my life I considered pursuing an academic career, becoming a teacher of ministers, but the work of the parish remained too attractive to me and I continued in my role as pastor and teacher of a local congregation. Some of the lessons of theology are taught in fairly easy settings. Each week I am given the opportunity to expound on scripture to a congregation of willing participants. I tell stories, give illustrations and work through issues in interpretation, translation and context of scripture. I also get to teach formal classes from time to time. A few years ago I was regularly teaching in the lay minister programs of Yankton and Cotner Colleges and would drive long distances for intensive class sessions with students. I worked hard on my lectures and the exercises and assignments I gave to students. I’ve been told that my teaching was effective and meaningful for the students.

There are, however, opportunities to teach theology in the parish in settings that are much more challenging and, in my opinion, much more difficult than a classroom or a sanctuary. The business of theology is often learned in the gritty real world of life with all of its problems and challenges. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. Sometimes it is frightening. After all the Bible is filled with lessons about life and death and contains scenes of violence and horror.

Yesterday was a day for theology in the rough. And it was a day for people to ask theological questions, knowing that I don’t possess all of the answers. I exited the sanctuary in the middle of a service to check on a gentleman I’ve known for many years who had rushed into the church to get his wife. There, with others leading their parts of worship and the need for me to get back and deliver a sermon to a congregation he asked me how God could take a beautiful young girl from this life. “I’m 75 years old, he sobbed, why couldn’t He take me?” It was the wrong moment to launch into a lecture about the fact that God doesn’t take people from this life. It was the wrong time to speak of the nature of God and the role of God in life an death. It was time to simply give him a hug and make sure that others were providing care for him while I returned to the service. With or without me he was in the midst of learning a big lesson about God.

Later I sat with him, his wife and friends as they continued to sift and sort and try to make sense out of the overwhelming tragedy that had fallen on their family. There were questions about the nature of God. There were apologies to me for some of the thoughts and ideas that came to their minds. I tried, to the best of my ability, to assure them that the stories of our people are filled with people who rail against injustice and tragedy.

I didn’t expound on the chapters and chapters of biblical literature that are filled with the stories of the deaths of innocent infants and children, wailing mothers, and a cry that can be heard throughout the region. It was the wrong time to ponder with them the challenging question of why tragedy has befallen our people so many times. I did a lot more listening than talking. That is a skill that took years to develop. A good teacher knows that there is much to be taught by not talking.

I did remind them that God can take human anger. And that God weeps with those who mourn. And that God knows the terrible gut-wrenching feeling fo watching a son die. There re a lot of stories about anger and anguish. Psalm 137 cries out with such anger that it threatens infanticide against enemies. The Bible can be terribly violent if you take time to read the whole book. But all of those stories are stories for different days, different occasions, different circumstances.

A good teacher knows that there are a lot of lessons that are too big to be learned in a single exchange, too big to be learned in a single season. A lifetime can be all too short for some of the lessons of this life. This family will be struggling with their ideas about God for a long time and the tragedy they have experienced is not something that they will get over. It is the job of the church to stand with them as they get through it without expecting them to ever get over it.

And the days of a pastor are not as simple as having only one lesson to teach. There were other lessons and other theological discussions to be had as I consulted with a daughter planning her father’s funeral and trying to reconcile the present experience with the funeral of her mother, which her father had planned. I had to explain to musicians how we were changing our plans for yet another funeral because sometimes you simply have to be flexible and allow changes to occur, whether or not you like them. I had a meeting with a couple of dozen people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as church people and who are uncomfortable with overt theological language and yet who are struggling with the same issue of the nature of the world, the quest for vocation and the struggles for justice that mark the lives of those who are more overt in their language of faith.

Like teachers everywhere I came to the end of my day not knowing whether or not my lessons were heard or understood or taken to heart. It takes a long time, years and years, for the true lessons to come to fruition. On the edge of exhaustion is never the right place to evaluate. But as I drifted off to sleep, I thought about all of the other excellent teachers who were stepping up to the role, even though they might not think of themselves that way. Throughout my day, I never left anyone alone. There were always others there, sharing the moment, sharing their faith, providing the support required. The responsibility is not mine alone, but rather one that is shared with amazing people who give of themselves over and over again.

It is a good thing. Because some of the lessons are so hard it will take more than one lifetime for us to learn.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!