I grew up hating Labor Day. I have nothing against the holiday itself, though the idea of celebrating work never seemed all that appealing to a child or teenager trying to avoid work. My antipathy for Labor Day was rooted not in the day itself but in the day that followed: the beginning of school.
As the dusk of this holiday settled into the darkness of night, a lump grew in my throat and a pit emerged in my stomach. Nothing seemed more distasteful to me than going back to school. Some of my friends loved getting their new supplies together. When I, however, walked into a store selling school supplies, I ran back out. School represented so much of what I hated about my young life.
The first semester of my junior year of college I was academically born again. A new professor awakened within me a love for learning. I went from not knowing what that large building in the middle of campus was to spending hours in the shelves and study tables of the library. I looked forward to what I might glean from a text and how my mind might expand about a whole variety of subjects. This professor taught me the joy of discovery.
I’ve been thinking about this the past few days because in our little town of Houghton classes began this week. Students at Houghton Academy and Houghton College have descended once again on our quaint hamlet to spend the next 9 months learning and this morning the yellow school bus came and picked up the children from our neighborhood. What I have discovered is that I no longer dread the beginning of the school year, I embrace it. I love having the students back—in town and in church. They bring life and excitement to the quietness of summer here. They also bring a renewed desire to learn that is infectious.
As I get older, one of my fears is that I will stop learning and even worse that I will stop wanting to learn. I fear getting to the place where I think that I have either figured out everything or that I have no interest in being challenged intellectually. I am praying that God will give me the will—to the end of my days—to never feel that I have arrived, to never be afraid to learn new things, and to never stop wanting to grow in knowledge.
My fears are not just personal; I am just as concerned about the church. I have a growing concern that the evangelical church has settled. Sometimes we give off the vibe that we have figured out things, that we have all of our theology fully worked out and that we have a handle on God and all that we believe. While I am glad that we are confident about what we believe, I fear that our unwillingness to think that there may be more we do not know leads us to appear arrogant to others who are not like us.
We have a tendency to take on the characteristics of the Pharisees and scribes for whom Jesus reserves his harshest criticism. Because they believe they have arrived, because they believe they have God figured out, because they believe that there is nothing more for them to know and experience, when Jesus comes, they miss him. Why? Because he comes in a way they aren’t expecting. Jesus comes in a way that is outside their well-designed ideas of theology and life. Their arrogance blinds them to the works of Jesus—works that couldn’t be done by anyone other than God’s Messiah.
This is not to say that every old idea is bad and should be discarded nor is this to say that every new idea is good and is to be embraced. Ideas are not good or bad because they are old or new, but because they are right and because they lead us closer to God and the joy of his wondrous creation.
The problem is that we don’t struggle with arrogance in a vacuum. Arrogance is a character trait that infiltrates every fiber of our existence until its poison has changed us into someone we no longer recognize. It’s the temptation to stop learning because we have closed our minds. A closed mind is closed not only to ideas but to people and God.
A.J. Swoboda writes: “No matter how much I believe that God is always the same (which I do), what I think about him hasn’t remained the same. The God I understood ten years ago is way different from the God I understand now.”
It’s the way God designs his creation—not that who God is has changed but that we are growing and maturing. Our eyes are being opened. This is what happens to learners: we keep learning. People who keep learning admit that though we thought we had it all figured out, we now realize that we don’t. We now realize that we will never have it all figured out. But that’s the joy of the journey with God: he keeps revealing more and more of himself to us and that is one of the most exciting elements of life.
Donald Bloesch says, “True orthodoxy is a willingness to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of the gospel.” To which Swoboda adds: “That means that there always has to be room in our theology of Jesus for Jesus. We must make room in our understanding of God for God to be God. Otherwise we are not accepting God for who God is.”
I still wrestle a bit with lump-in-my-throat feelings when I walk into a store in June and I am inundated with stacks and rows of school supplies. There is still something in me that wants summer vacation to extend as long as possible. But now, I am much more apt to give thanks than lament. I am grateful for people who have challenged me and encouraged me to never stop learning and growing in my understanding of God and his wondrous creation. I am trying to learn the habit of waking up every morning and saying two things to God: thank you for this new day and what would you like for me to learn today? I am finding that God is ready to receive my praise and answer my prayer.