Last night for the first time I had the opportunity to teach the bible class for the Spanish speaking congregation at the church I attend in Smyrna. Now, after four years of high school Spanish I have been able to acquire a decent level of understanding and fluency, nevertheless the one word I would use to describe last night’s experience would be: humbling. “If any man thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall”. If any man (me) thinks he knows Spanish well, take heed when you teach a bible class entirely in Spanish, cause you (I) will fall. Now, “fall” is probably a bit harsh, but certainly I was not prepared for how difficult it really would be. To try and convey my thoughts in an understandable manner in a different language to people of a different culture in different walks of life, most who have been Christians longer than I’ve been alive, was incredibly difficult. I recognized this while preparing for the class. As I weighed my options for the text of my lesson I quickly ruled out several scriptures simply because there is no way I could take the message of that text and express it in an understandable way. Needless to say I immediately ruled all apocalyptic literature (I don’t understand Ezekiel in English), several Psalms due to the vocabulary used (how do you say zither in Spanish?), and most every scripture that is written in narrative form, (do I use imperfect, no wait preterit, nope imperfect subjunctive… how about literary present tense?) which eliminates almost the entire old testament. So I was left with la primera carta de Juan (1 John), because of the simple gospel message I could pull out of it and because John is my favorite biblical author. But much to my surprise, even teaching for this book was a task that required I simplify the message even more. In fact, by the end I was almost left just reading the scripture, asserting our convictions already established on this truth, and proclaiming how amazing and beautiful this truth is. And, much to my amazement, it worked. The class went great. Everyone left so encouraged and filled with the joy of the Lord we could hardly stop. Now, I assure you, it was because of absolutely nothing that I did. In fact, it was because of everything I didn’t do. We simply celebrated the simplicity, the beauty, the glory, and the power of the gospel message.
I realized after the fact that this lesson would have bombed anywhere else. If I would have given that same lesson in chapel at school, or at highpoint at my church, people would have probably criticized my lack of preparation, my lack of originality, my lack of explanation, or my lack of depth. This is an example of something I said last night, (just it was in Spanish last night), “Jesus Christ died so that we might experience life, and he gave up his righteousness to take on our sin, so that we may take on his righteousness,” (basically 2 Corinthians 5:21). Now if that would be my main point, the climax of my lesson in most class settings, people might be sort of disappointed, because we already know this. We’ve been hearing this for our entire life. It’s as if we’ve arrived to the point to where when someone states a truth of the gospel we expect a deeper explanation immediately because that truth is not enough by itself. “Well, yes, Jesus died so we might have life, but…. So what? We already know that.” It’s as if with spiritual “maturity” we grow to appreciate the beauty of the gospel less and less, because we’ve analyzed and explained away the meaning. In the Spanish class, when I said that, immediately everyone smiled, and most everyone said with such overwhelming joy, “Amen! Glory to God! God is so good!” Now, I understand that expressing our joy in the gospel is not only done through verbal recognition of God’s greatness, but rather in the lives we life, but what is important is the enthusiasm with which they receive the message. And if you knew my friends in the Spanish church, especially the preacher, Israel, you would know that enthusiasm is lived out. And contagious.
Walt Whitman once wrote a poem that I find applicable here. It’s called, “When I heard the learn’d astronomer”.
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.
Another poet, A.E. Housman said this about poetry: “Even when poetry has a meaning as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out . . . Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” Being that my English teaches constantly has us analyze poetry, and prose, I wholeheartedly agree with Housman’s observation (especially if it decreases my work load). But I think that sometimes we do the same with Scripture. Now, trust me, I love analyzing the bible, I love studying the historical context, and cultural context, and diving head first into all the facets of a verse. And those things are great. They for sure help enhance your understanding. But, let’s not get so caught up in explaining a text that we miss the beauty. (“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:40-41) Like the speaker in Whitman’s poem, when I hear the learn’d minister sometimes I feel tired and sick. Because so often, I grow tired of the proofs and figures, the charts and diagrams that we have created to explain God. And so I wander off by myself and look up in perfect silence at the stars, in silence before the beauty of the Creator, only then to be unable to hold myself back from praise.
That’s what happened last night while teaching. As we collectively admired the words of God expresses in John’s letter, we had to express our joy over this simple truth. And today, must live out our joy, not in words, but in actions.