One of my best experiences in 2011 was teaching a course on Spiritual Mentoring and Spiritual Direction at Singapore Bible College. Apparently the course had helped the students too. Student feedback was enthusiastic. So I looked forward to teaching the course again. The first class was yesterday, Jan 11th. But last weekend I had work in Kuala Lumpur. Bernice and I drove up. We were driving back on the evening of Jan 10th when we received a call from son John. Bernice’s mum had had a bad fall and had to be hospitalized. We didn’t know the severity of her condition. We only knew it was bad.
Mum needed immediate surgery to relieve pressure on her brain. The doctors were not optimistic. Concerns for mum weighed heavy on my heart and mind as I went in to give my lecture. It wasn’t as enjoyable an experience as it should have been. But the whole experience reinforced one of my key convictions. Theological education must take place in the context of real life. Especially in a class on spiritual mentoring and spiritual direction. This is a class that is meant to help folks grow in their capacity to help people make sense of their lives from a biblical perspective. There is no way it should be learnt purely as an academic exercise insulated from the joys and pains of real life. I shared my struggles with the class. I encouraged them to share their stories in small groups. I suspect that we will discover that the most important lessons the Lord wants to teach us are often learnt in the storms of life.
We remember the disciples caught in a storm so bad they feared for their lives (Mark 4:35-41). In their fear they thought that Jesus didn’t care. Jesus stills the storm with a simple word of command. In the crucible of an overwhelming crisis the disciples learnt fresh lessons about Jesus’s identity. In the crucible of our present crisis I hope to learn fresh lessons about life and about God. I am not reducing mum’s crisis to some object lesson. This situation cuts deep into our hearts. We have had to make tough decisions. We have been told to expect the worst. We are exhausted. The grieving process has begun, though we are also totally open to a miracle.
It seems we learn our deepest lessons when we are scared sh___less, when life is totally out of our control. Remember the Israelites caught between Pharaoh and the Red Sea (Exodus 14)? It was in that impossible situation that they learnt lessons about the grace and power of God. How about Paul and the troubles he experienced in the province of Asia (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)? And the lessons he learnt there?
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NIV)
I am not against formal theological education. I have benefited much from my own journey through academic theological studies. I am just concerned that theological education is treated like any other academic discipline, with papers, exams and the pursuit of grades. There is content we need to know, but at the very least we should be studying our seminary subjects in dialogue with life.
I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his leadership of the German Confessing church during the time of Hitler. Here was a brother rooted in the Word yet shaping a faith that spoke to the realities of his time. He was pained that what was missing from so much of the Christianity in Germany of his day:
was the day-to-day reality of dying to self, of following Christ with every ounce of one’s being, in every part of one’s life. (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Nashville, TX: Thomas Nelson, 2010, 248.)
Bonhoeffer went on to start a non-traditional seminary and did much critical work before his eventual arrest and martyrdom.
This is the question that haunts many of us in traditional seminary education: are we producing scholars or are we shaping servants of the Kingdom who will bring the reality of God to a fallen and broken world? If we are trying to do the latter then our education must be Word centred but must also be shaped by a continuing dialogue with the realities of life, perhaps, especially, with the painful realities of life.