Start with Why

I’m a member of a cohort of folks actively engaged in Christian educational ministries for local congregations. Some of us are gainfully employed to lead the educational programs for adults, youth, and children. Others of us serve (have served) by teaching at the seminary level and developing curriculum for our denomination (Presbyterian Church USA). We meet every month by Zoom conference to encourage one another in the exercise of our vocations.

At our last meeting, one of our members expressed a desire to talk about the challenges of doing church work during a pandemic and wondering if this is in fact a new normal for the church. She asked, and we all nodded, “How do we do educational ministry for a new and strange reality”?

I wonder whether we might be asking the “how” question prematurely, without first asking why we do educational ministry in the first place. Simon Sinek has famously reintroduced many of us to the “why.” In his Ted Talk, Sinek reminds us that every organization operates on three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Further, most people can tell you what they do within an organization, some can tell you how they do it. However, very few if any can tell you why they do it, aside from citing desired outcomes, like making money. The why is caught up in words and concepts like purpose, calling, and vocation. Why do you do what you do?

Simon Sinek

Like the teacher who tells the student “what” (read this book) and the “how” (you’ll find it in the library; the English language is written from left to right and top to bottom on the page; there are several metaphorical frames of reference you’ll need to know to understand the author’s intent), the Christian educator can get caught up in the “what” (read the Bible) and the “how” (insert higher critical methods of biblical study and the like).

The “why” is the more difficult question and is seldom asked, except by honest kids who wonder why they need to read the Bible at all. If we don’t have a compelling, ready response to the “why” for Christian education, then what do the “how” and “what” matter?

What is your why? This is mine:

When my son David was a child, we had a regular bedtime routine (liturgy?). Following his bath and after his teeth were brushed, he would snuggle up in bed and I’d read a story or two from his children’s story Bible. David couldn’t get enough of the David and Goliath story. He loved the blood and guts of it, but as we would later learn, he also saw himself in the shepherd boy.

When he turned 20 years old, David was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a deadly bone cancer. Over the course of ten years, he endured six surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg, and several rounds of chemotherapy. During his first round, and before his leg was removed, David wrote a blog post about his experience. In it, he recalled David and Goliath, and likened his challenge to that of his namesake. The story gave my David courage, comfort, and strength as he faced the enemy that would ultimately take his life. That was not a small thing.

I teach people to read and understand the Bible because life is hard. I do it because the words and stories have provided me and my loved ones succor and strength, resolve and renewal. Especially now, when so many people are hurting and looking for help, the word and words of God hold promise for us all.

What is your why? Tell your story to those you teach. Let them see the Bible through your eyes, your heart. As they encounter the text, tell them what it means to you, why it matters to you.

Now let’s talk about “how.”

Grief as Hunger

On May 12, 2018, I arrived at the hospital to spend my son’s last day with him. He was in hospice care after 10 years of recurring osteosarcoma. Now with an inoperable tumor taking his life before my eyes, David was preparing to breathe his last.

As the end neared, I tried to take in as much of him as I could. Watching him, listening to his labored breathing. Kissing his head, tasting his skin, and breathing his scent, just as I had the day he was born. Hunger and thirst are fitting ways to describe my insatiable need to keep something of my son alive.

The Bible speaks of the soul in terms of hunger and thirst:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night. (Psalm 42:1-3)

Even today, more than two years later, my soul longs—hungers, thirsts—for my son in the flesh. Muscle memory appears unexpectedly when significant dates approach. Muscle memory serves a punch to the gut when an aroma or a word or a photo triggers that emptiness deep down that can only be described as hunger. It’s that place, the gut, where belly laughs come from, and where lurching sobs leave us exhausted.

I’ve tried to fill that emptiness with other things, like my job. But when that was taken from me eight months after David’s death, I turned to alcohol, which only masked the hollow feeling in my gut. Now, after two weeks with no self-prescribed sedative, I’m left with the raw longing for my son.

Now, I’m determined to pay attention to the hunger for him in the pit of my stomach. To live into it. To feast on David’s absence as the presence it is. The presence he is. My hunger will never be sated. I don’t want to ever be satisfied.

The grief of our nation and our churches is palpable today. We’ve lost so much through the pandemic and economic downturn. Death has dominated the headlines for months. It lurks at every door, it seems. It’s important to pay attention to the grief we’re experiencing. What do you hunger for? For what do you thirst? What if everything that has been lost never returns? Loved ones, friends, careers, pensions, normalcy.

The crises of our time have been apocalyptic in the truest sense—they have uncovered the inequities in our societal norms. They have revealed millions of people who have been grieving for generations, hungering and thirsting for equity and justice. In this moment, we have a chance for solidarity, paying attention to one another’s grief, and determining never to be satisfied until all hunger has been assuaged.

My son and every hope I imbued his life with are still with me. Unrequited hope is still hope.