Monday, January 13, 2014

the gift of teaching

Kloster Kappel, Switzerland. Location of my conference
I just returned from an academic conference in Switzerland entitled Sacrality and Materiality. Like any conference of this sort, it featured several scholars (in this case, most of them were from Europe) who are well-known in their field and a bunch of us who are still working at it. I was scheduled to present my paper on mysticism at the end of the second day, so I had a full day and a half to listen and learn before I got a chance to speak. The first night at dinner I sat beside a noted scholar, one who writes textbooks for the course that I teach, and after my conversation with this very knowledgeable man, I wanted to go to my room and rip up my paper. I was sure that anything I had to say would sound like babbling idiocy, especially in contrast to the brilliant scholars people would have heard by the time my turn rolled around. Since a rewrite was out of the question, I spent some time lying awake that night concocting an introduction which would explain why I had written such an inadequate and unsophisticated essay, one which would prepare my poor listeners for the weak words and badly composed arguments which were to follow.

I usually have mixed feeling when I give a talk, whether it is in an academic setting, a church meeting, or any other public forum. What seemed wise and true the day before often appears ill thought-out and malformed right before I am ready to offer it to others. I know from experience that these sensations are mostly a form of paranoia, fear raising its ugly head making me question why I ever thought I had something to offer in the first place. These are the times when I have to remind myself that teaching is all about the gift. I am not talking primarily about teaching as a spiritual gift which is bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit, though that is certainly an important and necessary reality for the follower of Jesus. Instead, I am referring to the importance of viewing the occasion of teaching as a gift which we are generously bestowing on others. Here are some reasons why I believe this is so vital.

1. Giving a gift means that we offer it freely without expectation of a return. It is a gift, not an exchange. We do not need someone to affirm how great it was or tell us what a wonderful teacher we are.  We just need to give the best gift we can and do so in a generous and unselfish manner.
2. Giving a gift is not an investment. Giving a gift means that we cannot make demands on how people use what we have given them. We cannot follow them around to make sure they are using what we have given them in the way we envision it should be used. Giving a gift means that we let it go. It is no longer ours. What we have given others can be misquoted, misused, discarded, contradicted, or ridiculed. It may also be respected, pondered, invested wisely, or responsibly added to. None of that is our concern. Once we give the gift, it is out of our hands.
3. Giving a gift means that the reactions of people have limited affect on us. This protects us from getting all proud when people shower us with compliments and ooohs and aaahs. It also keeps us from being devastated when there are angry and critical responses.  We must remember that to a great extent, how people respond to our offering is outside of our purview.
4. Giving a gift means that we make it beautiful and don't do a sloppy job. We carefully craft it, we make sure it is appropriate for the intended recipients, we meticulously wrap it for presentation, and then we send it forth. We do our best, we give our best, and then it is out of our hands.
5. However, giving a gift is not an excuse for being irresponsible. If possible, it is important to take note of how people receive our gift. If I have taped the wrapping on too tightly and made it difficult to access, I need to change that for future gift-givings. If the gift crumbles apart in the receiver's hands, I need to be more attentive to making it cohesive. If people leave their gifts unopened, perhaps I have been forceful instead of generous and invitational, or it might have been bad timing for that particular gift, or people might have been satiated or overwhelmed with other gifts. Where there is no perceived need or desire, it is difficult to give something to someone.

My ultimate example for gift-giving is God's generous offer of love, friendship, forgiveness, mercy, life and so much more. Too often I ignore or misuse these gifts and yet, he keeps on giving. My transformation into a generous person comes from being around his divine generosity.

Many have asked me how my presentation went in Switzerland. I can tell you that I did not stumble over my words too much, the PowerPoint did not malfunction, I stayed well within the time limits, and there was no earthquake during my talk. Afterwards, no one chased me out of the room with a stick, and  I received a few comments which indicated that people had heard at least some of what I said. The gift, imperfect as it may have been, was generously given, and I am content with that.


  1. I'm curious what the name of the text book is that you use.

  2. I teach Christian Spirituality and use Sheldrake's book, "Spirituality: A Brief History."