I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist….Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. — John Steinbeck
Today I will complete a journey that began over 30 years ago.
Today is my last day of class.
I still have several months of school work ahead of me: research, writing, project planning, writing, project intervention, writing, revising, editing, and more writing.
But today marks the final day in “class” of my academic career.
My first day of school was at Market Street kindergarten in Lebanon, Tennessee in the fall of 1982. My mother, an educator, forced me to wear “Sunday clothes” for my first day of class: suit, clip on tie, Buster Brown shoes…the whole nine yards. I remember holding my Dad’s hand as we walked down the hall; I was mortified to see everyone else wearing tee-shirts and shorts. One kid in my class called me “Jason Bible” because he said I was dressed like a preacher.
No, the irony of that statement isn’t lost on me.
Thankfully, I rebounded from that auspicious beginning and adapted fairly well to being a full-time student. I remember getting in quite a bit of trouble in kindergarten: there was the day I climbed in the cabinets to hide from my teacher and she frantically rushed to the principal’s office because she thought she’d “lost” me. When the principal and teacher came back to the classroom, there I was, sitting at my desk as if nothing had happened. I might’ve gotten away with the whole thing if that little girl who sat next to me hadn’t ratted me out.
Otherwise, school was always something I enjoyed. Actually, school work wasn’t nearly as demanding as some of the drills my mother put me through at home. I remember those summer mornings she made me complete both a math and spelling worksheet before I could go out to play. I’ve thought of her a lot this summer as I pass through the kitchen to see Sunny at the breakfast table working with our children on multiplication flash cards. I guess an educator’s work is never done.
Along the way, I’ve had some great teachers. In elementary school, I was fortunate to have my mother as one of my 5th grade teachers, although she missed much of the school year taking care of my father during the final months of his life. My undergraduate years were shaped by my exposure to the Bible faculty at Lipscomb: Randy Harris was my faculty mentor and a profound influence; Mark Black, whose embodied humility helped to shape my pastoral identity; Harold Hazelip, who made Historical Theology come to life for me; and Mike Matheny, who taught most of our youth ministry classes and had the courage to tell us the things we needed to hear, not just the things we wanted to know about.
When I began my work in Kingsport, Tennessee at the Northeast church, one of my elders, Calvin Crim, took me to lunch and told me I needed to continue my education. It would be inaccurate to say he “encouraged” me to go back; Calvin pretty much told me to do it. I was resistant at first, but I think deep down I knew he was right.
My first grad class took place two weeks after 9/11. I sat at the feet of Rodney Cloud, a walking OT encyclopedia, who taught me to appreciate the 8th century prophets. That course was foundational; after completing it, I decided to tackle the full Masters of Divinity, an 81-hour beast of a program. To this day, I still consult my notes from that experience: Terry Briley on Revelation; Philip Camp on Deuteronomy and Samuel; John Mark Hicks’ Systematic Theology.
At Lipscomb, I was privileged to train under David Fleer and Earl Lavender. David equipped me with a methodology for preaching; hardly a week goes by that I don’t think of his lyrical phrase, “You must preach out of the world imagined in Scripture.” And Earl has become so much more than a professor in my life; I count him as God’s missionary to me, a conduit of the evangelion life, a trusted counselor and friend. I would be hard pressed to quantify the impact of these two men to my personal development as a minister and disciple.
And in my time at ACU, the list of influences continues to grow: men like Mark Hamilton and Fred Aquino awakened me to the necessity of critical thinking in ministerial practice; John Weaver, Jonathan Camp, and Tim Sensing, men who insist on treating us as colleagues, not just students. And then, there’s Charles Siburt, a man whose legacy looms large both in this place and in the hearts of his pupils. I still hear his voice, that deep barrel-chested baritone imploring us to be differentiated self-managers, to be men of integrity and courage. I think of him often and I count it an honor to have been one of the final students to sit at his feet.
Today marks the end of a long and winding road. For over 30 years, I have been a student and although I know the learning process is far from complete, I feel a great sense of gratitude welling up inside of me. I am thankful for each of these, women and men who have given of themselves to pour something into my mind and heart. When you receive a gift like this, the desire to steward it well runs deep. That is what I am most struck by as I make the final turn toward the academic finish line.
I won’t be wearing a suit and tie today; instead, I’ll opt for more conventional attire. But today I give thanks for the ones who have clothed me with their influence, their care, and their love these past 30 years. I will be indebted to you always.