The Saturday afternoon sun beat down on the tin roof. I was teaching in a small church in a poor Tegucigalpa neighborhood. We were about halfway through the workshop on how to study the Bible when a woman raised her and asked, ‘My friend told me that since I cut my hair I am no longer saved. Is she right?’
Those are the first lines in my book, Religious No More: Building Communities of Grace and Freedom. That woman’s question 25 years ago led me to suggest to the group that we gather the following Saturday to begin a study of Galatians. While preparing for that study I read an essay on Galatians by Richard Hays that sparked questions, gave me new insights, and left me excited by the possible uses and implications of his interpretation of Galatians. I was nowhere near ready to write the book. I was not even clear enough on these new ideas to try to teach them that next Saturday. But it was the beginning, the birth of what would grow into the book. (To see what ideas in Hays’s essay shook me up and excited me you can read this reflection on the experience and/or listen to this podcast.)
Several months after studying Galatians with that church I had the opportunity to study Galatians with Richard Hays at Duke University. The following summer I again led a study of Galatians in the same church; now using the ideas and approach I had learned from Richard Hays. A few weeks ago I was in that same Tegucigalpa neighborhood, once again teaching in that church. We revisited Galatians during a Saturday afternoon workshop. I taught them something I had not yet encountered when I studied Galatians with them in the 1990’s--Paul Hiebert’s concept of bounded, fuzzy, and centered churches.
Just as I shared new ideas with them, I wanted to hear from them. I wondered what they had observed and learned as they have sought to live out what we discovered together in Galatians years ago. Many from that original group have moved away, but a number remain. Sunday evening Mario and Alba invited those from the church who had participated in the initial Galatians studies to gather in their home for a time of sharing. A few of them had been in the workshop described in first sentences of the book, all of them had participated in the second time we went through Galatians as well as in a year-long Sunday School class on basic theology I taught after we moved back to Honduras in 1996.
On Saturday I taught, on Sunday I listened. They shared a number of beautiful stories and great insights. In this short blog I will focus on just one person’s comments. Evelyn Cantor, a teenager when we did the second Galatians study and the theology Sunday school classes, responded to my open-ended question by reflecting on children’s ministry.
In teaching children, people generally focus on themes, not on Jesus; they talk more of God than of Jesus. In our society and in our churches when people do talk about Jesus the focus is on his birth and death, not his life. I try to focus on Jesus as a role model for us and revelation of God. I ask who Jesus is and let that shape the way children think about who God is. People talk a lot about sin, but it is in the sense of standards and rules, and it is cloaked with a sense of accusation and threat. It is important to talk about sin because sin does bring harmful consequences in our lives. I seek to help children and youth reflect on sin, but without fear. Sin is real, but we can use other language. For instance, I ask, “Are you oriented toward Jesus or oriented toward destruction?”
There is much I could say about Evelyn’s comments, and perhaps that is the first observation—the contrast between her brevity and my longer statements. In just a minute or two she made a number of excellent critiques and profound theological statements. In contrast, even now it is hard for me to resist expounding on each line. The depth of her theological thinking impresses me, and her ability to state things with clarity in such concise ways. I will resist adding theological commentary; I invite you to read her lines again—slowly. Allow the Spirit to guide you in reflection on them.
I will, however, reflect a bit on teaching—and I am using that term in the broadest sense. I never taught Evelyn in a formal setting with assignments and grades. No, it was Sunday school classes, workshops, sermons, and conversations. Many of you who read this are teachers in this broader sense.
Her words encouraged me greatly. Teaching can make a difference; it can be a multiplying activity. I do not mean to claim credit for all she said and is doing. But my teaching contributed. Teachers, be encouraged!
Some of her lines clearly echoed things I had taught her church community—as I just said, that is encouraging, fulfilling. But what excited me more was that she said things that I had not said. Sure, they are related to ideas we had studied together, but the phrasing and application are hers—I will borrow from her! The line that particularly stands out to me is: “Are you oriented toward Jesus or oriented toward destruction?” It is exciting, as a teacher, to see how something you taught “stuck,” even more exciting when God’s weaves together something you taught, with the person’s experience, other teaching, her own insights and comes up with something new—teacher becomes learner.
How is this group doing as they seek to live out what we learned from Paul’s letter many years ago? Perhaps the best answer is not a comment made by someone who has been there for 25 years, but a comment by a newcomer. Maria, after having experienced bounded group religiosity in other churches, recently came to this church. On Saturday, during a small group discussion, Maria said, “Now I have been changing, not because of rules and threats, but because I am loved.”
May we, like Evelyn, think carefully about ways our talk about God and life can be even more Jesus-centered; and through that may others, like Maria, become more oriented toward Jesus and less oriented toward destruction—because of love, not fear.