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Surprises 7: The Education of a Disciple

I’ve been telling you about a number of things that surprised me after I became a disciple of Jesus. There were lots of other surprises along the way, but I’m going to stop this particular series with this seventh surprise.

I was now nineteen years old (almost twenty), and a lot had happened since my conversion to Christ six years earlier. I was a lay minister in my church, preaching at my home congregation and elsewhere every chance I got. I had already studied for two years at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan (it would become Grand Valley State University shortly after my graduation), but I didn’t enjoy college very much. I wanted to be out serving God. I did speak up in all my discussion-oriented classes, telling my teachers and peers that I was a Christian and a lay minister, but I wanted to do more. I was majoring in Social Work, and I had even spent a semester as a Teacher’s Assistant in the “Intro to Social Work” course. I didn’t feel particularly led in that direction, but it was the only field I could think of that would allow me to “serve.” Most of all, I felt called to be a minister, but the church our family was affiliated with was comprised mostly of home-grown lay ministers just like me. We took turns preaching, and we all pitched in to visit the congregation’s shut-ins, people in the hospital, and so on. Our church did have full-time paid ministers, but they were employed by headquarters, assigned to particular regions where they were most needed, and tended to be bureaucrats, not preachers of the gospel. And I had no interest in becoming a bureaucrat. So I had to find something else to do with my life.

On one of the last days of my sophomore year, I decided to launch a prayer campaign, asking for direction for my life. I was halfway through my college career, and I was very concerned about what I would do after graduation. I prayed to understand what God was calling me to do with my life.

I spent the summer praying, and I felt very strongly that the answer would become clear to me if I read a novel by the American author Lloyd C. Douglas. The novel was Magnificent Obsession. I chafed at the thought; all I knew about the book was that it had been made into a movie starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and it was a schmaltzy chick flick. I had read Douglas’s novel The Robe a few years earlier and had loved it, but I had no interest in Magnificent Obsession. Nevertheless, I kept feeling the prompting throughout the summer, so I finally bought a copy of the book from a second-hand bookstore in September and sat down to read it in the last couple of weeks before my junior year began.

I was not at all impressed by the premise of the book. It was about a young medical student who experiments with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-2 and has his potential unleashed by “doing alms in secret.” I felt that Douglas’s thesis stretched the meaning and purpose of that biblical passage far beyond Christ’s original meaning. But as I prayed to understand why this book had been brought to my attention, I realized that it was the author, and not the book itself, that was important. Although Douglas was a Congregationalist minister, his novel was filled with insightful observations about everyday life, and those observations were not merely used to drive home his religious point. It was clear that he was a broadly-educated man. He wrote convincingly about the medical profession, sculptures, music, the automotive industry, banking and finance, literature, live theater, European travel, and a few other subjects. The farther I read into the novel, the more impressed I became with his awareness of the world around him. I myself had spent most of the last six years studying the Bible and listening to religious radio broadcasts and nothing more. Education was a means to an end for me, and not at all something I enjoyed. But Douglas reawakened within me – or perhaps awakened fully for the first time – a desire to learn as much as I could about everything.

This thought was in the back of my mind as I was reading, but on one particular afternoon – a day so important that I consider it one of my personal holy days – I put down the novel and prayed again for guidance. In that moment I was given a glimpse of what my life could be like. I realized that I was called to a life of learning, and that Jesus Christ would continue to be my Teacher. On that day, a vast interdisciplinary path stretched out before me, and it extended far beyond graduation day. I came to understand that I was called to more than a religious life; I was called to Life. On that day, I committed myself to the Life that Christ was showing me.

When fall semester started a couple of weeks later, lots of coincidental conversations and events reinforced this revelation. I began to love going to school again, just as I had loved it in my freshman year of high school. I loved learning about anything and everything, and I recognized God’s guidance at work in each new lesson. I continued to preach and teach and to share my witness publicly at the college, but I was now on a new and exciting adventure. Jesus Christ was teaching me not only about the Bible but also about secular subjects. And although this brought me full circle, back to my very first experiences as a new Christian, it also opened whole new vistas that I could not have envisioned at the age of 13.

There were many detours along the way, but through the intervening years God has led me to earn a masters degree in the field of Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I have a den crammed with books on a wide variety of subjects, and God has taught me so many things about the world around me that I don’t even know how to share them all. I changed my church affiliation over thirty-five years ago, but I continue to preach and teach even now. I still can’t keep quiet about what God has done in my life.

This was the surprise: that discipleship involved more than just studying the Bible, praying, and serving others in Jesus’ name. The path of discipleship that Christ was calling me to, at least, was a detailed education about the Story of Life and a commitment to add something of value to that Story as a speaker and writer. This experience drove home the point that God doesn’t ask us to become religious; He asks us to enter into Life. And although I found that Life right away when I became a Christian, I got sidetracked by religion. It took me years to find my way back. Nor was it I who made the discovery; it was God who finally got me to see the value of learning secular subjects, with Him as my Lord and Teacher as well as my Savior.

There have been many more surprises in my relationship with God, but I’ll talk about them some other time. The main thing I want to emphasize, though, is that God doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations. Anyone following Jesus can expect to be surprised many times along the way, as I have.

Peace and Quiet

There aren’t too many churches going in this direction these days, but 100 years ago the Congregationalist minister Lloyd C. Douglas thought that the church’s great gift to the larger community ought to be “one solid hour” of peace and quiet.

I’ve quoted him on this subject in the two most recent entries on my new Lloyd C. Douglas page. Click on the link to go there.

Why Congregational Histories Aren’t Congregational

My article, “The Problem with Congregational Histories” is on pages 28-29 of the latest issue of The Congregationalist. I argue that “congregational histories are not written in a way that is even remotely ‘congregational.'”

Click here to find out why.

(It will take you to the September issue, then scroll down to page 28.)

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