A few weeks ago I got to speak at a prayer retreat in West Virginia. A Church of God (Anderson, IN) women’s organization runs this annual retreat, and as I walked into the cafeteria for dinner on Friday night, I realized just how out of place I was. I am a United Methodist, I don’t particularly enjoy events involving large groups of women, and I was younger than ninety-eight percent of the retreatants by at least forty years. As I enjoyed my dinner with Carolyn, Betty, Lila, and Nola, ages 74–83, all women who would take no nonsense from anyone and whose laughs are as mischievous as they are generous, an image came to mind: Helmut Thielicke’s young theologian.
When I was in college I was a religion major sure that seminary and ministry were my call. Knowing this, a professor assigned me (extracurricularly) Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Eerdmans, 1962). It is still one of the most significant books I have read. I assign it to every seminary class I teach. It should be required reading for every theology student. Thielicke presents an image of the first-year seminarian home on break and asked to preach at his home church. The student, enamored with all he has been learning about God, wants so much to share what he has been learning so everyone can be dazzled by God. But in his excitement, the young theologian stays in the ethereal and uses all of his new and exciting vocabulary words. The result is that he does not so much dazzle as dizzy the congregation. Worse, the young theologian has forgotten one very important thing – the congregation, in their long experience of faithfulness, has a lot more wisdom and deep understanding of faith than he does. Thielicke says that the seminarian is left standing in the pulpit looking like a child in his father’s suit, not yet grown into his theological britches.
It’s a comical and cutting image. I’ve tried, in my (paltry) 13-odd years of studying theology, to hold on to that image and keep my education in its proper place. That came home to me very quickly at this women’s prayer retreat. If I had stood up at the lectern and tried to lecture these saints about how prayer works, they would have put me in my place real fast. I was the whippersnapper in the room, and they have all lived lives more than twice mine with joys and sorrows and challenges I may never know. More than this, they are the faithful saints of the church. They know about prayer at a deep level because they spend all their days praying. I, a theologian, have at best a few words from others about what prayer is. And though I pray daily, my life is simply not long enough to have the wisdom of these women. I count it a gift of Providence that I was too busy to think about preparing another lecture and instead chose to facilitate a few ancient forms of prayer for these women. I offered them resources from the tradition and invited them to tell each other, and me, what God was speaking. It was both a gift to learn about the way my training and my vocation are useful to the church as well as a slap of a reminder that the way I use my education matters.
It’s a hard thing for those of us who study theology. We know how important the things we’re learning are. We know they will sustain our ministry and our students’ ministries; we know they support the church. And yet without faith, they are nothing. We sometimes spend so much time talking about God that we forget to sit still and talk to him. It’s one of the things that I love about many ancient theological writings: they are often theology in the second person. Confessions is Augustine’s prayer. Anselm’s Proslogion is directed at God. Read your homework in such a way that it makes you want to pray. The subject of our study is not dead. He is risen. And so he is alive. Is our theology? Look at the people around you in your church. When you preach, when you pray, when you teach a Sunday School class, they will tell you whether your theology is alive. When it’s not, we need to receive the gift of people who grab us by the shoulders, look us in the eye, and say, “God! He is risen!”