Somewhere in the backlogs of this web site I recounted what it was like being on staff at a church full of seminary students. Everyone knew so much that we had real difficulty doing anything- like buying stamps- without endless debate.
Of course, there were advantages to having a lot of smart people in the church. Our liturgy was far ahead of most churches, so on an intellectual and aesthetic level, it was a thing of beauty. We never had problems getting Sunday School teachers. We had problems getting our Sunday School teachers to not use too much Hebrew grammar. And, of course, because we were a rather intelligent bunch, we enjoyed the blessing of not being ignorant.
Iâ€™m quite serious. Itâ€™s not a good thing to be ignorant, and Christians shouldnâ€™t hold up ignorance itself as any sort as a virtue. As much trouble as it was, I was glad there was always someone around to remind us that economic decisions had connections and repercussions in the real world. I was glad we were made sensitive to racism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled and so forth. I was even glad when some homosexual Christians came by to talk with the pastoral staff about their concerns. They didnâ€™t get what they wanted from us, but it was a conversation that I wasnâ€™t ashamed to participate in.
Now I live in a part of the county where ignorance of every sort is widespread. The dropout rate is almost 30%. Running any kind of school here is a battle. And most of the ministers and Christians in this area are untaught, or at the most, self-taught. Comparatively speaking, pastoral ignorance of various kinds is common.
My friend Walter is a local pastor. Heâ€™s never attended Bible school, much less college. Heâ€™s not much of a reader. Heâ€™s too busy in his bi-vocational ministry just trying to make ends meet and do what his job, family and church need of him to be a scholar. Some of Walterâ€™s sermons are difficult for me to listen to. They are delivered in mountain style and they are, frankly, hard to understand. Mostly, Walter takes a well known character or story and applies some principle from the scripture to the day to day experiences of his congregation.
Mountain people face many difficulties. These include poverty, drugs in the community, unsafe living conditions, lack of economic opportunities, undependable medical care, crime and so on. A mountain pastor is always facing a congregation who, for the most part, are there because if God doesnâ€™t come thorough, life is going to fall apart. Walterâ€™s people believe that he can point them to Godâ€™s power and presence. They believe the encouragement of the Lord comes through the â€œman of God.â€ They are generally not there to experience a â€œChristian classroomâ€ with pastor as professor.
Of course, those who are more educated in the doctrines of the Christian faith will tell me that there is much wrong with Walterâ€™s ministry. He needs to know many, many things and preach them faithfully. His congregation will be strengthened by doctrinal soundness in way they wonâ€™t be through Biblical stories and their lessons. His ignorance ought to be repaired and his ministry improved. Iâ€™ll not argue with that, but I will tell you another Walter story.
One thing I didnâ€™t tell you is that two years ago, I was in the hospital with my dying mom, and I needed a pastor. At the time, I didnâ€™t have one. I guess I could have called any number of the ministers that I know. Actually, having been the minister in the hospital before, I was fairly certain of what would happen, and while I wouldnâ€™t have been ungrateful, it wasnâ€™t that important to me.
Walter happened to be in the hospital that day, visiting members of his congregation and the wider community, as was his habit. He found me, my wife and my dying mom in the ER.
Walter stayed with me all day. He found a doctor who would let my mother stay in our hospital and pass there, instead of flying her to Lexington. He helped me talk to the doctors about the course of treatment mom and I had agreed on. He prayed for me. He was a pastor to me. He was Christ to me.
Never once did Walter attempt a theological justification of the ways of God. He never got out the Bible. (Nothing wrong if heâ€™d chosen to, of course.) He was the Bible for me that day. He put flesh and blood on God and hung out with me. He thought for me when I couldnâ€™t think clearly. He knew my heart and he helped me listen to my heart at a very confusing moment. He treated me with love and dignity that brought joy into one of the worst days of my life.
Walter showed me that day that if you are going to measure life by how itâ€™s lived, and not by how people talk about what they believe, he knows a lot more about God than I do. Heâ€™s not read anywhere close to the books that Iâ€™ve read and he doesnâ€™t have my vocabulary or degrees. He has the the book that matters, and its author, in him. Compared to Walterâ€™s embodiment of Jesus, Iâ€™m stupid.
Those of you planning to write and tell me the other side of the coin can save your ink. I know the other side of the coin. What Iâ€™m going to say to anyone listening is that I see little evidence that great learning or correct doctrine produces Christ-like people. It may, and it certainly has a part to play that canâ€™t be eliminated. God has used books in my life to make me more like Him. But a lot of those books have been theologically ignorant and incorrect by the standards of the doctrinally correct and intelligent.
Iâ€™ve spent years listening to claims and counter claims about how various theologies, doctrines and denominations can get you the real Jesus if youâ€™ll learn there bit or or join their team. Based on the resulting lives Iâ€™ve seen- starting with my own- Iâ€™d say weâ€™re all full of â€œdungâ€ on that one. Christ-possessed individuals exist across the spectrums of denominations, education and sophistication. In fact, Iâ€™m starting to suspect God puts his fingerprints all over more people from the wrong side of the tracks than on â€œourâ€ side just to throw us off. He must enjoy hearing me say someone who does or doesnâ€™t believe theology/doctrine â€œXâ€ canâ€™t manifest the deep imprint of the fingerprints of Jesus. (Heavenâ€™s Comedy Channel must include hours of stupid things Iâ€™ve said.)
Jesus says that God loves to take a Walter and show me real spirituality. He loves for me to realize that I can make an â€œAâ€ on a theology paper and be useless in a hospital or in the lives of real people. He loves for me to hearing the banging, clanking, crashing uselessness of much of what Iâ€™ve valued, and then discover the treasure in what Iâ€™ve called trash.
Walter has a life full of Jesus. How did Walter get so full of Jesus? By wanting him there and keeping the doors and windows open for Jesus. Not by learning the outline, the answers and the powerpoint version and stopping there. My version of Jesus often looks a lot like an essay question Iâ€™d write. Walterâ€™s Jesus- his rough, unpolished and ignorant version of Jesus- is the real deal, at least when it counts.
Remember that Jesus was a teacher, but he never dismissed class. Life was his classroom, because he refused to isolate truth into compartments. He had no intention of producing a disciple who was an expert in theology but useless in a hospital ER. He had no plan to allow the specializations we use to excuse ourselves from what it really means to be a Christian. Carrying the Cross and Washing Feet werenâ€™t talks. They were your life.
And if youâ€™re smart enough to improve on that, youâ€™re too smart. Dumb up, brother.
(NOTE: â€œWalterâ€ is not a real person, but a combination of several mountain pastors I know who all have the character I am describing. And, yes, one of them spent the day with me in the hospital, just as I described.)