I woke up early last week to the news that one of my former teachers had passed away. I knew of his recent health challenges but was surprised to hear the news. He marks the sixth person in my life to pass away since returning from my honeymoon at the end of May. At this moment, he sticks out as having an effect on my life I had not noticed before.
Each of these losses has uncovered various moments in my faith journey. As I've reflected and remembered my encounters with each person and told stories about them to my wife on the way to funeral services, I am struck by how those people and the faith communities we've shared impacted my faith, for better and for worse.
My former teacher is not the only person lost from my days in Christian education. In general, I remember my years as a Christian school student with mixed emotions. I met some good friends I continue to be in close touch with. I grew familiar with Scripture through regular Bible classes, memory verses, and weekly chapels. Yet encountering Scripture so much in an academic setting, it remains challenging to detach my faith from being an academic enterprise (though I have recently been making progress in this area). I also came to associate Christianity with behavior more than Jesus. Christian school was one place I heard the message, "Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven. Now do your best to please Him so that He is happy you're there." Teachers utilized Scripture as part of correcting bad behavior. I often heard sentences that went, "A good Christian will do such-and-such." And our behavior was treated as being up to us. It wasn't that being united to Jesus' death and resurrection transformed our desires (see Romans 6). Nor was it about the Holy Spirit indwelling us to empower us for holy living. It was simply us reading the Bible, learning the right thing to do, and doing it to make God happy. I also regularly heard one specific Bible teacher emphasize that if we did not agree with his specific interpretation of a passage, we didn't actually trust the Bible. It was an anxious way to live out the Christian faith, not one that brought joy and freedom in Christ.
In this context, this particular teacher stood out. I only had him for one year, 8th-grade science. I reconnected with him when I began to substitute teach. He was the first teacher I subbed for and I also had the pleasure of subbing for his children. I remember being surprised when our class learned he voted a bit differently from the way we had learned Christians were "supposed" to vote. His wife was a pastor, which I had never seen before. Yet he wasn't totally out of place. He still taught young-earth creationism against evolution. But I remember he didn't seem to completely match everything I had thought. He brought into question some of the homogeneity of politics and public witness I had grown accustomed to. Yet in all of his teaching, from his young-earth creationism to politics to women in ministry, he was never defensive. He was never pushy. He never gave the impression that his views and life were the only way to be a Christian. Most of the time he asked thought-provoking questions rather than give answers. Seeing his life opened up for me the possibility of asking questions and reflecting. He also gave me one image of a person whose Christian life was about following Jesus, not checking off the correct boxes, no matter how wholeheartedly. I didn't pick up that lesson through any specific teaching, words of insight, or a planned lesson. I learned it simply through him living his faith out in front of us. He never seemed anxious about getting the answers right and making sure he had done all the things that pleased God. His life looked like the life of someone who trusted in Jesus' love for him and loved Him in return. And as a former student, it always felt clear that he loved me and was proud of me, even without saying anything. His quiet, confident love for Jesus and others is something I want to hold onto and emulate. While it would be several more years before I began to learn a theology of Christian life that counteracted what I learned in Christian schooling, he gave me a glimpse of an unanxious Christian life. At a moment in my life when I have been reflecting on the ways Christian leaders have let me down (see here), I am grateful to have had his influence in my life. When my wife asked me to tell her about him, my summary was, "He was the exception and he should have been the rule."
His family and community remain in my prayers. I can only imagine the impact he had on them if he left me with so much after one year in his classroom. They have seen his faith up close. They have witnessed how he loved his family, gave to his church, and followed Jesus even through suffering. May they know the hope of the resurrection, that we will all see him again.
Almighty God, we remember before you today your faithful servant; and we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive him more and more into your joyful service, that, with all who have faithfully served you in the past, he may share in the eternal victory of Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.