I was a preacher in training at Oklahoma Baptist University. Oklahoma was staging its version of fall’s shades of brown, orange, and splashes of red and yellow just to prove their existence.
Upstairs on a yawny Wednesday. Shawnee Hall. James Timberlake (Lumberpuddles) presided over Systematic Theology as if any of us might think systematically. Most boys in the room (you heard the silence correctly, no girls) were merely stamping what they already knew: and firmly believed they knew more than Dr. Timberlake. Not only did the boys know more, they were better at believing, stronger and wiser than this dinosaur trying to connect dots for the room’s brilliant non-learners. Timberlake: what we believe is more than “getting it right” and more than “notching the grips on theological guns.”
What we believe; how we fashion believing into coherence guides our faith, shields our lives, and strengthens our resolve in the face of — life when ragged.
Few in the room suspected how ragged life can be, is, will be.
So in the middle of Kierkegardian Existential Epistemology (See? You do have reason to be impressed!), boys talked, being flagrantly disrespectful, sharpening theological knives to carve up some whelp named Soren. With a side dish of dinosaur.
He paused. For a second he was a wet-behind-the-ears Army Chaplain in the advance of Patton’s troops to close the pincer on the Battle of the Bulge and he said to the rude children, “When you are in a column of soldiers, and the Major stops your jeep to point a little Belgian boy with a Mauser marching a German soldier in the direction of where we are marshaling prisoners. And the boy and the soldier skirt behind a building and then the rifle shot rings out; and you know he shot that soldier, you may not be as certain what to believe as you are in your comfortable chair now.”
Many of the fifty never dropped a beat. Never heard him. They already had correct beliefs, no; not beliefs, knowledge. It took no faith to espouse the answers on the exam, you only had to memorize answers. They were super-pastors in training; here to merely time stamp their wisdom and move on to establish the Kingdom of God in growing churches that would love them, maybe worship them a little.
For a second, the disheveled hair vanished, the gray suit faded to olive drab in layers against the 1944 unbelievable cold, and the crew cut kid with glasses still sat in the jeep with the rifle shot ringing in his ears, for the rest of his life.
He was trying to tell the deaf that a checklist of certainties, an inventory of what you know because you have never needed much faith, real faith, faith in the face of the overwhelming — that parts of life will rock your boat. Blow you out of the water.
Systematic is not so systematic. Theology strips down to a ringing question of faith . . . what do you know, what do you therefore think when all else echoes hopelessness?