What God, Through Nature, Taught the Theology Professor

Students probably don’t realize just how much their teachers are fellow learners. I found out in my 16 years of teaching theology that continuing education is not always found in print. In fact some of the most impressionable learning experiences were outside the library and the classroom.

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta of southeastern Arkansas on a sandy loam farm that would grow just about anything. It seemed all you had to do was point a seed at that rich soil and it would start to grow. Though farming was not a life focus for me like it was for my Dad (who worked on the railroad so he could afford to farm), I have always found a particular joy in growing trees, shrubs and flowers.When the mission board transferred my wife and me to the seminary in southern Alberta, my extra-curricular assignment was landscaping about sixty acres of the campus. I always teased the president for wanting to make sure I’d keep my theology down to earth. What could be difficult in growing plants and trees in the foothills of the Rockies, I wondered? I soon found out I had quite a learning curve to scale. What follows are some of the lessons I learned (but not perfected by any means) working with the short growing season of southern Alberta. Most significantly, they helped remind me to keep my lectures practical and livable.

The campus is in foothill country located on a prairie. I soon learned why there were very few native trees on the campus. It wasn’t the variable climate of Alberta winters, it was the seemingly omnipresent wind. Over in the adjacent valley spruces grew tall. They were protected from the wind. At our place we might get a couple inches a year. After several years of frustration, someone suggested I colonize spruces, place them in fairly close proximity so they could protect each other from the wind.Those trees provide a great example to us as the church. When we face cultural resistance about sharing Christ, we realize how important fellow Christians are and how the Christianity community helps us face that opposition. As I worked outside, I would get extremely fatigued from the incessant wind sweeping around the mountains in the distance. Even so Christian leaders must learn to deal with cultural resistance to the gospel and fellow believers are indispensable for that to happen effectively.

I also learned to add peat moss to break down stiff clay so roots could set more easily. You could say I contextualized those trees. Most seminary classes wisely stress the need to contextualize the gospel, not change it or add to it but shape it to “fit” the culture, being careful to stay biblical. Even though spruce trees are native to Alberta, wind and clay make growth difficult on a prairie. Oak trees are not native to the province. I audaciously planted one beneath the president’s office window. Several years later it’s still hanging on. I have an idea that if it could talk, it would say, “you fool, don’t you know I don’t belong here? Many of our graduates often feel that way trying to plant an evangelical church in an alien culture.

But there was something even more important to learn if I wanted healthy spruce trees to dot the campus. I learned it when I was determined to get one particular scraggy spruce to start growing. I kept it watered, fertilized it regularly, but it hardly budged. After several years of meticulous cultivation, it had hardly grown an inch. I mentioned my dilemma to a local and he asked if I had added any “spruce acid”? I told him about all the fertilizer I’d applied but he said spruces won’t absorb those nutrients if they do not have adequate “acid”. No wonder Jesus said “Seek you first the Kingdom of God and all these other things will be added to you.” If Jesus is central in our lives, we are spiritually healthy and grow as we can and should. He tells us we can even gain the whole world but without Him we are incomplete.

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