You may have noticed that once every three months or so, I go on a trip to meet with other pastors and study. I have the opportunity to do this because I received a grant from the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ. The program they fund, called the Pastor-Theologian program, is designed to encourage pastors to continue their theological study while in the parish. Towards that end, they design a common syllabus for us to study, assign us books to read, and require that we write a 20 page paper in order to continue in the program from year to year. The goal is to help us keep our theological “chops” fresh. CTI covers all the costs of my transportation and stay while attending the conferences, buys my books for me, etc. It is actually a great gift to this congregation, because this part of my continuing education does not come as a bill to the church.
It makes a lot of sense that CTI would encourage pastors to consider themselves to be “pastor-theologians.” Many of you probably assume that part of my job as pastor is to be a kind of resident theologian and scholar in the community. You rely on me to do some teaching and preaching, to have a good grounding in Scripture and the Christian tradition, so that when you come with questions regarding the faith, I can be prepared with an answer, or will know where to look with you to explore the question. Furthermore, to stay engaged in theology has a very positive impact (I hope) on my preaching, it keeps the language and reflections fresh, and true to the gospel that has been given to us.
Our pastor-theologian group meets quarterly to engage in some joint theological reflection (send me an e-mail or call if you’d like to see the syllabus). It’s really a fun group to gather with. We’re all kind of “theology nerds”, I’ll confess, so when we get together, a lot of our meal time and social time, as well as our meetings, are given to discussions of “weighty” theological matters. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who loves their job. You know that after work, if you have supper with fellow teachers, or fellow construction workers or nurses, you may discuss some of the more intricate, difficult, or compelling issues from your work.
Not only that, but you’ll probably use some specialized language that the rest of us don’t typically use. I had no idea what a PICC line was until I had been visiting people in hospital for a while. I didn’t know what a trowel was until I had worked with cement. I didn’t know what “case weather” was until I came to the Koshkonong prairie. The same is true of theology- you learn the words as you go. Incarnation, salvation, these you may have picked up from preaching or other church contexts. But ecclesiology, pneumatology, perichoresis? These are words I didn’t learn until I had been immersed in the study of theology for some time. Most of you have a vocabulary like this that you’ve learned over time that you find useful as shorthand, words and things you study that help you on your way as you work.
You don’t tend to use this specialized vocabulary when speaking to people who aren’t in your profession. It would be annoying if I used all this kind of language in my preaching, for example, or in casual conversation. But that doesn’t mean that learning these themes and terms isn’t important. It just means that what is expected of all of us who learn is that we will learn our specialty, and learn it well, but also learn to translate it, to communicate it to those outside our small group who have specialized in it.
The same might be said of the life of a Christian. All Christians in the contemporary world are given a difficult assignment. We are called to “translate” the gospel into the worlds we live in. We hear the message of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation, in a variety of ways. In preaching, through receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, witnessing a baptism, singing hymns, reading the Bible, praying, or observing acts of loving service. But this is not the end of the Christian journey. Instead, after we have heard and received this message, it is our job, each one of us, to communicate this message in the context of our daily lives. At the end of worship, you hear, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” In the freedom of the Spirit, you are called to exactly that, serving the Lord in your work, family life, waking and sleeping.
We will be of no use if we don’t learn the special language of the gospel. If we don’t learn the special language of the Christian faith (what some call the catechism), if we aren’t engaged in continuing study, if we aren’t being continually educated as Christians, then we will have nothing to translate to a waiting world. On the other hand, if we get too immersed in the special insider language and don’t work at translating it, we will be no earthly good either. The Christian calling is to do both, to learn the language of the faith well- justification, saved by grace through faith, Trinity, truth- but then also to translate it, to make it speak where we live and work, with our children and parents, with our co-workers, even to our pets and the whole of creation.
I hope that my participation in continuing education is a role model for this. I enjoy setting aside time for study and reflection, but always with an eye to translating it into what I preach and teach. In the same way, I hope each adult in this congregation will participate in continuing education as a Christian. Set aside some time to attend a class, or read a recommended book on the faith, or the Scripture. You can do this, can’t you? Continue to learn the Christian faith, so that your faith grows up into the maturity Christ has called us to in the Spirit. Do your homework