On An Even Keel

 In Character, Church, Duty, Faith, Fred's Blog, Teaching, Theology, Vocation

Listen to “On An Even Keel” by Fred Smith

 

A friend asked me, “What do you think your best contribution will be? And for what would you like to be remembered?”

I did not need time to mull over the answer: “I have been a Sunday School teacher for the largest part of my life now, and other than being a husband and father, I think that is the answer to your question. I am a Sunday School teacher.”

Granted, it doesn’t always feel that way when the alarm goes off at 5:00 every Sunday morning. That’s when I put together the notes I’ve worked on all day Saturday. Some mornings it feels like a calling and other days it feels like a job. I suspect that is true for the thousands of other teachers getting up on Sunday to get ready. We are not really official ministers with a parish but there is something about the work— even when it feels most like a job— that carries the sense of being ordained to it.

In Working The Angles Eugene Peterson speaks of the commitment required of ordained ministers. His words also capture how teaching feels for me, and I read this often with the first coffee on those early Sunday mornings:

“This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know there will be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel, we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives.”

We Are Keels

Scripture is full of instructions for teachers, but sometimes we need a short list about our work. We need a reminder of the essentials— especially in these times of changing definitions of the very basic beliefs about Scripture, relationships, sexuality and the relevance of the Church. As Peter Drucker wrote in Managing in Turbulent Times, it is in these times that we must face up to the new realities. It means starting with the question: “What is the world really like?” rather than the assertions or assumptions that made sense only a few years ago.

A teacher is not a harbor or an anchor, a sail or a rudder. We are keels. We help people manage in turbulent times by keeping them stable in the truth and in reality. In times of instability, people attach themselves to easy answers, sure things, strong leaders, institutions that promise security, heresies, novelties, cults, movements, extreme beliefs or no beliefs at all.

One of the few items on the short list for me is found in Ephesians 4. We are to prepare people for maturity and works of service. The word “prepare” can mean several things. It describes mending nets, refitting a ship or resetting a broken bone. It’s not about making people perfect and it assumes we’ve been through some wear and tear in our own lives.

Mending nets is constant. It’s done after every use. It is daily and routine. Even tedious.

Refitting a ship is periodic. Barnacles accumulate. Wood decays. Holes are punched in the hull.

Resetting a bone is extreme and once in a lifetime for most people.

The work of a teacher in preparing people is all three:

It is sitting around stitching—talking and working together.

It is working with people in drydock and out of service for a time.

It is the emergency room.

But it is not preparing people for being museum pieces or door prizes or merely pristine and pious. It is preparing them for works of service in a turbulent and changing world. A world that is going to bang them up, put dents in their hulls, tear their nets and, sometimes, put them out of service for a time.

And that’s what I think about every Sunday morning. That’s my job and these are the people God has given me. So, yes, I do believe being a Sunday School teacher will be, for me, what has defined my life and I think this is true for so many of us in the “5:00 a.m. fellowship.”

Art by Caroline Karp

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Showing 21 comments
  • Avatar
    John Thomas
    Reply

    This is an outstanding blog for preachers as well. I have passed it on to a few pastors I know. Thanks so much for the great wisdom and rock, solid understanding of the role of the Bible teacher

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. I am working on a second book – a collection of Sunday School lessons. We’ll see how it goes.

  • Avatar
    John T Wierick
    Reply

    Wonderful post, Fred. I’ve always wished that Shelley and I lived a bit closer to Tyler so we could enjoy your class. And to hear you’re working on a second book… pretty darn exciting! By the way, this painting by Caroline Karp is beautiful. Are you familiar with the work of Armin Hansen, a late-19th/early-20th century California artist? I think you’d enjoy his work, as well. Eternally grateful for you!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. No, I was not familiar with him until you mentioned him. I’ve just now started to look at his work. The good thing about blog art is you can switch images easily. Maybe I’ll plug in one of his images for a few days. I love his style.

  • Avatar
    Toni S Hibbs
    Reply

    You and Carol have been an “even keel” for me through some very turbulent times. You will always have a special place in my heart. This is a beautiful piece. Your influence has reached far and wide. May God bless you and Carol in the days yet to come. I can’t wait for your second book. I love you, Fred!
    And the art is fabulous. ❤️

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Toni. It’s been a privilege to be in your lives.

  • Avatar
    Steve Perry
    Reply

    Fred, as you speak of the teacher as one who “mends, refits, resets”, you are definitely speaking of one who is in the service of God’s Shalom, making whole that which is separated or broken.

  • Avatar
    Tav Lupton
    Reply

    Fred,
    Your 5 AM discipline also reminds me of Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”
    When a calling feels like a job, God is still working on us.
    It was good to be reminded of that perspective to be up to the task.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, it is definitely a long obedience in the same direction. There really is no other way.

  • Avatar
    Cheryl
    Reply

    We’d love to be in YOUR Sunday school class…..we’re in the CA Bay Area 🙁

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      What a nice thing to say! You may have read in one of the comments that I am compiling 40 of the lessons into a book.

  • Avatar
    Don Laughlin
    Reply

    Fred, Thanks for saying “yes “ to teaching the class at First Tyler. I believe we called it “No Jacket Required”. We had it at a Restaurant. Right? You are an excellent teacher! Thanks Don Laughlin

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Now that’s a memory! Yes, we did it at Luby’s and I think we had as many as five one Sunday. They were the first wave of “nones” I guess. Who would know today what “no jackets required” would mean? Than you for the opportunity to do that.

  • Avatar
    Ann
    Reply

    Fred, inspired by the compassionate role you envision of the teacher– All the qualities I need to hear and receive in my life’s journey: stiching, refitting, mending. I was just thinking..” I would love to be in his class”… when I see a book is coming. Great news. Love to you and Carole. The painting is amazing.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Ann. I am going to publish some of the edited lessons in a book this year. I’ll let you know when it is finished.

  • Avatar
    John Sims
    Reply

    Thanks as always, Fred. Words of wisdom for Sunday school teachers, preachers — and so many of the rest of us working “first to understand, then to be understood.”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, John. I appreciate your encouragement.

  • Avatar
    Trey
    Reply

    Thanks Fred. So encouraging, true and insightful. I would add what John Claypool said, who as you know was both an ordained priest and gifted teacher. He viewed himself as a Barnabas, a “son of encouragement,” and believed good teaching on the Good News brings deep-seated hope or restores hope where it may have been momentarily lost. You’re certainly a Barnabas to many, even Episcopalians. 😀

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I think Barnabas is one of my favorite people in Scripture. He not only encouraged but he spotted new talent (like Paul) and stuck with people who made mistakes (like John Mark).

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Trey. Barnabas also knew good talent when he saw it.

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