Theological Education Changed My Life, Part 2

I began preaching once a month when I was called to serve as associate pastor at LaSalle Street Church (Chicago) in 1989.

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Preaching my last sermon as a pastor at LaSalle Street Church, August 1999

Let it be known that I have never taken a course in homiletics. The grace of God and the generous attention of those people formed me as a preacher.

Not only did I lack training in preaching, I had also never taken a course in biblical exegesis. By trial and error, I learned how to study a text, and then how to express some true and important things about it that might be helpful to the spiritual growth of other people. Again, the grace of God.

My ignorance and inexperience led me back to school about twenty years after my first sojourn at seminary (see my November 2017 blog post).  This time I discovered  McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

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McCormick Theological Seminary Administration Building in 1995

Thinking I might like to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree,  the plan was to take enough masters-level courses (especially in biblical studies) to supplement my earlier, shorter degree and go on to the DMin.

Twenty years before, my first seminary experience was full-time and residential. Now  I was part-time commuter student. I registered for a fall course called “The Letters of Paul” and drove down to Hyde Park for the first day of class. Walking through the lower-level of the building, I saw a woman somewhat frantically making multiple copies on different colors of paper. Turned out this was my professor, Dr. Margaret M. Mitchell, and she was assembling the 20+ syllabus for our class that met just about 15 minutes later.

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Historical Artifact: syllabus for “The Letters of Paul” course taught by M. M. Mitchell , McCormick Theological Seminary, Fall 1995. Those of us who have studied with her over the years have come to appreciate the clear layout, the breadth of contents, and the sheer artistry of her syllabi.

After maybe two class sessions, my brain was on fire, and in a good way. We delved into Paul’s writings in ways that:

  • positioned the letters in the Roman Imperial context;
  • made clear his sometimes contentious relationships with the recipient churches;
  • explained some of Paul’s more confusing images and theology; and,
  • connected the students with strong research about ancient literature and rhetoric.

I was enthralled by Professor Mitchell’s extensive knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy, archaeology, history, and art. Her enthusiasm energized the lectures and discussions.

Every day I found new ideas to ponder about these letters . . . deeper interpretations that made their way into my sermons and teaching. I just love this about theological education–those opportunities for integrative learning that benefits leaders, churches, and missions.

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I registered for my next course at McCormick, during Winter Quarter 1996: “The Book of Job,” instructor Dr. Theodore Hiebert. What a contrast in teachers, topics, and learning strategies! Ted’s syllabus was exactly one page long, on white paper, an example of the openness of his pedagogy. I think our first assignment might have been to write an essay about a personal experience of Job-like suffering, when life felt unfair, God seemed absent, and hope was exhausted. At the end of each class, Ted would organize the next session, asking “Who would like to present on C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed?,” “or “. . .  Bill McKibben‘s The Comforting Whirlwind?” “Which two of you want to respond?” Throughout this seminar, we students developed deep respect for each other, and, I at least, gained an enduring affection for the book of Job.

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Sarah Tanzer, Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, McCormick Theological Seminary. Sarah served as editor for my commentary on the Pastoral Letters, asking insightful questions about the contents and making suggestions that greatly improved the writing.

My four years of part-time study at McCormick focused on these and other delightful instructors: Sarah Tanzer, Robert Brawley, David Esterline, Paula Hiebert. And they brought another turn in my journey: following their examples, I gradually discerned a call to a teaching ministry in biblical studies. I switched my course of study to an MA, and immersed myself in Greek and Hebrew. With their support, I applied to doctoral programs in my late 40s, so that, by the grace of God again, they became my colleagues in this academic mission.

Once again, theological education changed my life, this time through these professors who labor in that field out of love for the scriptures and for those students preparing for ministry.