By Randy Gariss
Dear Class and Family:
Well, I’m here at the Teacher’s Rehab Center and I just got back from my first support group session for struggling teachers and preachers. I really hate to admit it, but the first day wasn’t as bad as I expected.
I am not yet ready to thank you for kidnapping me and forcing me to go, but I do want to apologize for my angry words and swinging fist as the class mobbed me and carried me out to the rehab bus. (Especially to you, Sweetheart . . . I just think your wild enthusiasm for the intervention process surprised me.) Please pray the 28 days go quickly.
Anyway, first we had to introduce ourselves. It was painful, but my “Hello, my name is Randy, and I am a poor teacher,” was warmly greeted by a strong chorus of “Hello, Randy!” I had no idea the room would be that full nor the camaraderie so instant. The session lasted most of the afternoon, and I’m just now processing what I heard.
I will admit that familiar excuses sound shockingly shallow when I hear them come from someone else’s mouth. Early on the denials dominated:
“It is not my fault . . . the quarterly is not very exciting.”
“My messages are only boring if you don’t really love Jesus.”
“I can’t help it, I’m just not a very exciting person.”
“If Bob Russell would just write better sermons I wouldn’t be here!”
“Of course I’m controversial . . . that starts discussion!”
“Hire some people to do all I do, and I might have time to study!”
“People love me, I have the gift of comedy.”
“I’m fresh, I’m relevant, I’m cutting edge . . . and among Pharisees.”
“They’re crazy . . . for years that has been a good sermon!”
“When I was a kid the preachers were boring . . . and it was good for us!”
God’s Word and My Life
I think that might have remained the day’s theme except the facilitator asked us about Scripture and “what real role does it play in your life?” Glen, a preacher from Iowa, began to speak (pontificate actually) on the fact that “the Word of God is eternal and it is inspired and true and profitable for . . ., ” and then he began to quote passages.
The facilitator surprised us with an almost angry interruption. “No Glen! I did not ask what the Bible is—I asked what role it plays in your life!” He went further, “Glen, at a museum I can see and look at valuable things, but at that museum those items are on a shelf—and as real and true as they may be, they are lifeless and dust-covered.” An uncomfortable silence followed as he slowly looked at each of us before saying, “You came to this center because for far too long you have been museum tour guides. You hold up the Word of God because it is true, but you don’t hold it up as something alive and powerful in your life. And specifically you don’t hold it up as something that brings laughter or tears or fresh conviction to your life each week.
“We easily stand in front of a class, but did the preparation of that lesson or text bring us before God? We hold up the Word of God, but we end up just being tour guides, trying to take people somewhere we ourselves haven’t been!”
In the following silence you could hear all of our excuses begin to slink away. He concluded, “The goal of Scripture is not information but transformation! And we are frauds to teach texts that are not transforming us!” It was quiet for a long time.
Jim, an elder from Illinois with a pretty, tender voice broke the silence. He said what we all were thinking. “What kind of crime must it be in God’s sight to make the ‘living word’ dead, to make the ‘bread of life’ stale, to bring a ‘dry cup’ and call it the ‘water of life’?” He confessed, “I have taught my class about Jericho, Jerusalem, and the Jebusites, but I don’t think I’ve been teaching them the heart of God . . . not a fresh heart at least, because I’ve forgotten to look for it.”
There was little else to say. Our facilitator said it was probably time for a break and a little solo time. We were told to go off by ourselves for an hour with a Bible. I especially remember his prayer—that some of us would “rediscover the Word.” I think that prayer was significant.
God’s Word and My Teaching
I began to read Ezekiel. He too was in exile; I guess I thought we might have something in common. No, I’m sorry, that is a dishonest answer. The truth is, I don’t know why I started there. But by the second chapter the text was jumping out at me and the whole world began to slow down.
I was fascinated by God’s repeated instructions to him. “Ezekiel, you eat my words!” “You put them in your heart.” “You listen to me.” “You speak only my words to them.” I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what had been missing in my own teaching. Was I suffering from malnourishment, and feeding my own people empty “calories” as well? I shed tears today on the pages of Ezekiel.
After an hour we were called back to the support group, and this time the discussion was entirely different. Shawn, the preacher from Georgia (you notice I’m using names—the joke around the compound is that we are just like AA, except that bad preaching is never anonymous!), asked if he could show us something powerful from Jeremiah. During his solo time he had underlined more than 180 similar phrases from the book. Without comment he just started reading them. At first some thought it was a bit of a joke and you could hear a little laughter. But it soon was one of the most moving readings most of us have ever heard.
He simply read, “The word of the Lord,” “the word of the Lord,” “hear the word of the Lord,” “my words,” “speak these words,” “God has said.” I don’t know if he read all 180, but like a sledgehammer, the phrases kept driving the point deeper and deeper into each of us. It is the Word we bring. We have nothing else to offer.
We had a life-changing discussion after that. Emily, a teacher from Michigan, probably expressed best the incredible privilege we teachers and preachers have, “We get to think the thoughts of God along with him, and then to speak that content into the lives of others.”
She is right. There must be something blasphemous about abusing that privilege. As a class and congregation, I do ask your forgiveness, and I ask you to pray for me as I seek God’s forgiveness.
God’s Word and God’s Thoughts
This letter is long, but there is one other story I really want to pass on to you. Someone from Kentucky said that Dennis Kinlaw tells of the first sermon he ever preached. Dennis said when he finished almost everyone shook his hand and told him he had done well and would make a fine preacher someday.
But then the last old man, the gentleman who had been his host for the day, came up, “put his hands on my shoulders, and said, ‘Next time you come to preach, don’t tell us what Dennis Kinlaw thinks. Dennis Kinlaw doesn’t know enough to help a soul. Next time you come preach, you spend enough time on your knees with an open Bible so that you know what God thinks. Tell us what God thinks.’” Kinlaw said, “I never have thought that old man to be mean . . . he was right.”
I’m afraid for many of us the pulpit or classroom have been where we tried to have our egos stroked, or sought to be seen as clever or bright. Maybe sometimes we just wanted to “survive” the experience and not embarrass ourselves. Perhaps it is laziness or apathy that causes us to handle the “sacred as carnal.” Whatever it is, poor preaching and teaching are tragic.
I think I can speak for most of the group when I say that we want to stop preaching and teaching the Word we used to study,
the Word we were going to study,
the Word that somebody else studied.
Because ultimately we were not teaching the Word at all.
Well, I have to go, the supper bell is ringing. Not that supper interests me. Rumor has it that for teaching purposes they will be serving lukewarm pudding, soggy bread, reheated leftovers, and Spam (more likely there will be no meat; there is some kind of symbolism in that I would suppose).
One day down and 27 to go. It was an important day. I will write more tomorrow.
Determined to leave the ranks of poor teachers,
Randy Gariss, a contributing editor with CHRISTIAN STANDARD, preaches and teaches with College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri.