“The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning God wakens – wakens my ear to listen to those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4).
I was scheduled to preach at Memorial Church, Harvard, on Sept. 16, but Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina and I stayed home with my family, fearing that the power would go off (it did), or that a tree would come down on our house (it didn’t). I pass along the following thoughts from that undelivered sermon for two reasons: First, because Deutero-Isaiah’s wonderful text, as timely for Harvard’s fall semester 2018 as when it was written some 2,600 years earlier, unlocked in me untold memories of those who helped me learn “to listen to those who are taught.” Second, these recollections reflect something of a response to the current U.S. president who “allegedly” branded his attorney general “a dumb Southerner,” a regional caricature of obvious presidential preference. All the individuals celebrated here are Southerners, but they are anything but dumb. Anyway, given the current state of religion and politics in our country, all Americans should resist efforts to regionalize dumbness.
“I was told not to take your class,” the student said, sitting in my office at the Baptist seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early 1980s.
“Why?” I inquired, innocent as Adam before the talking snake showed up.
“At its best, teaching moves through and beyond information toward a relentless challenge to ‘sustain the weary with a word.’”
“Well, my friends say that you are ‘dangerous’ because you believe that women should be ordained (remember this was the ’80s in Southern Baptist life); you are too friendly with Catholics (I married one, although I doubt the student knew that); and you are theologically irreverent (confusing irony with irreverence).”
“Well,” I replied, “would you settle for two out of three?”
He took the class.
The words of the biblical text and the beginning of a new semester in academic life call us to reflect on the radical nature of teaching and learning. In two brilliant sentences the writer sums up the sacramental element of learning, experienced intentionally in a classroom or unintentionally in the give and take of life itself. At its best, teaching moves through and beyond information toward a relentless challenge to “sustain the weary with a word.”
Effective teaching and affective teachers involve those whose ears are “wakened to listen to those who are taught.” In The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner sums up “the terror and delight of teaching,” noting:
The terror was that someday in the middle of a sentence I would simply run out of things to say and the class would rise up and denounce me for the impostor that in my heart I knew I was. And the delight of it was that if things ever somehow catch fire in a class, something happens in the air between master and students that is so much better and wiser and more alive than any of them that every distinction between who is taught and who is teaching all but vanishes.
That’s the sacrament of it, the outward and visible sign of something bigger than professor and student; moments when the community of learners unites in realms of thought, controversy, insight and transcendence that no one really expected or intended. When that happens, there is nothing like it – moments when “God wakens my ear.”
“The best teachers and students provoke us, everyone.”
Teacher-mentors have wakened my ears throughout my life. I remain in touch with my high school English teacher, Dr. Sue Coffman, whose classes I took my junior and senior years at Paschal High in Fort Worth, Texas. She was just out of college, full of all the energy and 1960s activism that she could implant in us. Sometime in 1963-64, when the Civil Rights Act was being debated, she made me debate my best friend, Emory, over integration/segregation, and she assigned me the segregationist argument. I wasn’t a segregationist, yet never having gone to school with a black person I was patently ignorant about civil rights, integration and racism. Listening to myself defend the indefensible in that debate was transformative. Dr. Coffman wakened my ears, forcing me to come to terms with my own furtive racism, a sacramental moment of learning that I carry with me to this day. (She still corrects my grammar, BTW.)
The best teachers and students provoke us, everyone. In his Harvard Divinity School address of 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson – part Plato, part Ichabod Crane – attacked the “corpse cold rationalism” of Calvinist and Unitarian alike, declaring, as any good Transcendentalist would, that: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What they announce, I must find true in me, or reject. . .” For Emerson, truth was not really known until experienced deep within.
“There are times when life and history take a turn, and teaching/learning is put to the test.”
Across four decades, listening to students (“those who are taught”) has provoked me to action and insight I might otherwise have dodged. Ronald Bobo, among the first African Americans I ever taught, compelling me to join him in picketing Louisville Gas and Electric on a cold day in January when the company was turning off poor people’s electricity. Earl Marsalis, student in my earliest classes, dying with cancer; leaving this world with a dignity that personified the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I will die, but that is all that I will do for death.” A bravery I hope to mirror when “time for me shall be no more.” The Japanese woman in my class at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka who declared through the translator: “Sometimes I can’t tell which part of me is Buddhist and which part of me is Christian. Can you explain that, Sensei?” – a question so disarming that I blurted out my confession that I often couldn’t decide when I was Christian and when I was American. Over the years, when students moved classes from instruction to provocation, I’ve not only been awakened, I’ve often been reborn.
Yet there are times when life and history take a turn, and teaching/learning is put to the test. On Tuesday, September 18, 2001, Wake Forest professor/poet/prophet Maya Angelou addressed students and faculty at the University’s School of Divinity. We had scheduled her visit months before, with no way of knowing that it would occur exactly one week after two commercial airliners brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Like every other American, we were still in shock from the unthinkable violence that took the lives of almost 3,000 human beings, literally leaving a huge hole in America’s largest city.
Angelou’s long anticipated lecture became a holy moment. She was in her New York apartment that fateful day, making a pot of soup to serve the little army of friends who sought sanctuary there. She recounted terrorism’s long history in the Holocaust, the slave ships’ Middle Passage, the Lynching Trees of the Jim Crow South and assorted global and national massacres of innocents. She continually cited Jesus and her great friend, novelist James Baldwin, both searching for hope amid the abiding reality of human evil.
I took notes in a dog-eared copy of her classic text, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, notes I only recently rediscovered. With characteristic directness, Angelou concluded by asserting that the terrible events of 9/11 required what she called “unanticipated courage,” a strength that lurks deep within, dormant until unleashed by unforeseen tragedy. “Life will test our learning,” she declared, so we cultivate courage in the “safe times” to sustain us when everything else is falling apart.
Unanticipated courage, unanticipated learning, unanticipated grace – still sustaining, still provoking the weary with a word.