On An Even Keel
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