The Way of the Learner
My grandfather was a man of little formal education. He grew up in a rural farming/mill town community in northwest Georgia at a time when work was far more important than education to all except a very fortunate few. The Great Depression was hard on all of America and education was a luxury for those with more stable financial situations which was very few people. If I remember correctly, my grandfather’s formal education ended in the third grade and after, he started working. For the next several years, he worked either on the farm or in the cotton mill at Pepperell. In 1943, he joined the United States Navy, serving in the Pacific fleet until the end of the war.
After the war, my grandfather left military life for a short period of time before rejoining. For the next twenty-five years, he served as an NCO in the U.S. Army. Military life put him in a position to educate himself. For those of you who have served, you know that the military tests soldiers and sailors frequently and emphasizes the need to continue educating yourself in your field. My grandfather adopted this kind of learning as a lifestyle. This lifestyle allowed him a certain level of learning and knowledge; one that allowed him to do newspaper crosswords with an ink pen.
The army afforded him the opportunity to finish his primary and even get in a few years of college education during his service. This set the stage for my father, as my grandfather made a point of the importance of reading and education. My father would go on study at the college level and have several degrees from photography schools. My father would pick up his father’s mindset and be almost insistent on my sister and I having a good education. For that matter, I don’t think I ever seriously considered not going to college and beyond.
As I think about this story, it reminds me of certain aspects in The Way of Jesus. First off, learning is intentional—we have to want to learn. We choose to be learners as followers of Jesus. This reminds me of the call stories of Jesus disciples, like the one we talked about last week with Matthew and this week with scripture readings we have engaged with. In the Old Testament reading, Elisha is chosen by Elijah as his successor, but Elisha has to accept this calling and respond by actually following Elijah. Of course, he does, and becomes Israel’s prophet after Elijah departs. In the same way, Jesus specifically calls twelve people to follow him as disciples, those who will learn to emulate the Way of Jesus. In both cases, and in our case, we make a choice to answer a call to learning how to be a disciple. This is what is happening to us when we truly repent, we are changing and reorienting our direction intentionally to align it with Jesus’ teachings. Discipleship, learning the Way of Jesus, will not magically happen to us. We have to choose it each day with the intention of living into it.
M. Scott Peck writes, “The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning. This is the second thing, learning never stops—we will never have the Way of Jesus completely figured out. We will always be growing and refining and developing our understanding. We will only ever know through a glass darkly as Paul says and so we will always be learning and refining what we understand about how to follow Jesus. We will always be listening for the voice of our teacher, the Holy Spirit, to teach and remind us of the words of Jesus.
Consider Peter. He begins his journey as a fisherman who most likely heard Jesus preaching somewhere in Galilee. At some point, Jesus recognizes the potential in Peter as a disciple and calls him to be a disciple. Peter leaves behind the family business and with his brother Andrew, begins to follow Jesus. He has high and low points. He calls Jesus Messiah and is called down for trying to stop the crucifixion. He preaches the Pentecost sermon and leads the church in Jerusalem after Jesus death, but doesn’t treat Gentile Christians fairly. One of the last things we hear about Peter is the Cornelius story where he says, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” The Holy Spirit falls on their gathering and Cornelius and his household are accepting as fellow disciples of Jesus. Socrates said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Discipleship is much like this. It is a fire we kindle and keep fed through the Holy Spirit. It is not a one off event, but a continual renewal and refilling of the Spirit for the purpose of becoming and helping others become better disciples.
Finally, learning is preparation for doing. In all these cases we see throughout the bible—Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Joshua, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and the disciples—the followers are not just learning for learning’s sake. They are learning as preparation for doing. They are learning a way of life and being that they will emulate with their lives. As disciples in that tradition, we too answer a call to not only learn but to do. Belief is not really belief without action. The writer of James says,
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives
In order to truly be disciples, what we learn we must do. If not, we have leaned for nothing. Knowing that we must feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and imprisoned is empty knowledge if we don’t respond to the knowledge and act on it.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus said, “We need to set our affections on one good man and keep him constantly before our eyes, so that we may live as if he were watching us and do everything as if he saw what we were doing.” Jesus is our man. The question is where are our affections? Is Jesus and his Way constantly before our eyes? Do we live as though Jesus through the Spirit watches over us and our actions?