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In Honour Of Our Sunday School Teachers


1 John 1:6-13       Romans 8:14-16


I: — I remember so very many of them, the Sunday School teachers who are memorable just because they were of unspeakable help to me during my most formative years.

June Hocking was my teacher when I was 8 years old. As we approached Good Friday and Easter she explained to us 8-year olds what the cross was about. She told us it was God’s provision for us needy, needy people who were so very needy on account of our deep-dyed depravity and God’s just judgement. (Of course she didn’t use big words like “provision” and “depravity”; she knew the vocabulary of 8-year olds; because I don’t, I shall have to tell the story in my own words.) Then she asked those who grasped this, anything of this, to stand up if they wanted to own it for themselves. I stood up. She asked me specifically if I understood what any of this meant. I convinced her I did. Again in words suitable for little people she told me that my public declaration on that day was ratified in heaven eternally.

Soon afterward my family moved to another congregation. Now Catherine Heasman was my teacher. She was quiet, gentle, understanding. She knew I felt strange in my new church-home. She went out of her way, in her sensitivity, to defuse my apprehension.

When I was 10 or 11 my teacher was Dorothy Greenshields, an unmarried woman about 50 years old. One Sunday I became embroiled in a vehement argument with a classmate as to the correct spelling of an obscene word. Can you imagine it? Your beloved pastor arguing heatedly over the spelling of an obscenity! Miss Greenshields let the argument rage for a while, then told us we should talk about something else.

By the time I was 12 Gordon Fairbank was my teacher. Gordon was a graduate of the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman history. Gordon spent much of class time telling us that Greek and Roman history was the finest university program anyone could pursue. The weekly lesson always had much to do with the Roman background to the gospel-stories, and it was in Gordon’s class that I learned the word “Mesopotamia”, together with many other unusual words. One Sunday Gordon had to be in New Orleans (he worked for a travel agency) and so he sent along his fiancee, Jean, in his place. I thought she was the prettiest woman I had ever seen.

Grace Eby was another teacher: middleaged, reserved, anything but outgoing or hail-fellow-well-met. While she was much older than I, and often appeared to a live in a world that seemed older still, there was something about her that hooked my heart — for when I was 14 I discussed with her my new-born call to the ministry. Earnestly, haltingly, fearfully I discussed my unsuppressible vocation with her, and discussed it with her when I didn’t say anything to my parents. (In fact I was 22 years old before I breathed a word of it to anyone else.)

My last Sunday School teacher was Carlton Carter. He was a superintendent with the Scarborough Board of Education. He taught a class of 15-year olds. Every Sunday he brought so many books and reference materials to class you’d have thought he was doing Ph.D research.

II: — What was the point of all that my Sunday School teachers did on my behalf? What was the point of the diligence and faithfulness and affection that they exemplified? What is the point of Sunday School teaching now?

The point of it all was highlighted for me through a recent newspaper article. The article accompanied a photograph of Mafia gangsters in Hamilton carrying the casket of one of their fellow-thugs out of a church. Mr. Dominic Musitano had died. “Tears flow at funeral of mobster”, the headline read. Dominic Musitano had engineered the beating and killing of many people in the course of his underworld career (fellow-gangsters, I assume, who had been less than cooperative). He had the conscience of a cobra. At his funeral the clergyman said, “As a young child Dominic Musitano was brought to this church for baptism with holy water. It was then that he became an adopted son of God.”

No! He didn’t become an adopted child of God because he was baptized with holy water. And it wouldn’t have made any difference if he had been baptized with unholy water. And it wouldn’t have made any difference of he hadn’t been baptized at all. According to scripture we become adopted sons and daughters of God through faith; only faith, always and everywhere faith. John writes in the fourth gospel, “To all who received him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” To all who received him, who believed in his name (nature, presence, effectiveness).

Paul says more about adoption than any other New Testament writer. The apostle insists that while Jesus Christ is Son of God (uniquely) by nature, you and I become children of God by adoption into God’s family through faith. The point of Sunday School is the quickening of faith in youngsters. The point of Sunday School is the fostering of that faith by which they will come to first-hand experience of what Paul speaks of when he writes to the believers in Rome, “You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery that plunges you back into fear; you have received the spirit of sonship, of adoption. When we cry, `Abba! Father!’, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

We sometimes hear it said that faith is caught, not taught. It’s a false dichotomy! Something has to be taught. The gospel has a precise content; youngsters must become acquainted with it. The gospel is truth; youngsters must learn to distinguish it from error, falsehood and illusion. The gospel is inseparable from him whose gospel it is; youngsters must grasp, therefore, how truths are related to Truth (i.e., how correct articulation of the gospel is related to the reality of living person, Jesus Christ.) “Faith is caught, not taught”? It’s a false dichotomy! Something has to be taught!

At the same time, something also has to be caught. If Sunday School concerns only what is taught, never what is caught, then Sunday School is simply an exercise in shuffling one’s mental furniture. To say that something has to be caught is to say that youngsters have to be infected. And the teacher, from a human standpoint, is the “infecter”.

Jesus speaks at length with a Samaritan woman, speaks with her alone. The woman in turn goes back to her village and tells the villagers all that Jesus Christ has come to be and to mean to her. A short while later several of the villagers come to faith in the master on the strength of the woman’s testimony. Then as faith grows in them and with it the assurance of faith, they tell her, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this indeed the Saviour of the world.”

What’s the point of Sunday School? — the fostering of faith, such faith as will find the youngster-turned-adult saying, “It is no longer because of your words, Sunday School teacher, that we believe; we now know, for ourselves, him whom we have trusted.”

III: — Yet more than faith is needed, and therefore more than faith is the purpose of Christian Education. A Christian mind is needed too. A Christian mind can’t be acquired overnight. It takes years to develop spiritual antennae that can discern critically what is going on in the world and whether the Christian should support or oppose, welcome or denounce, wait for further light or warn others loudly. It takes years to develop that critical sophistication without which victimization is inevitable.

During the daily update on the Bernardo trial this summer a newspaper columnist, commenting on the sexual adventures of Mr. Bernardo, poured scorn on a lawyer connected with the prosecution. The columnist spoke of this lawyer as slightly older than middleaged, gray-haired, someone who had no doubt married only once and who had had, no doubt, one sex-partner only. What would such a man understand of Mr. Bernardo and his proclivities? So that’s it! Someone who has been married only once and has had only one sex-partner (spouse) is a 14-carat “nerd”? There are several issues here that have to be assessed on the basis of a Christian understanding.

Daniel Johnson, the Quebec politician, was annoyed (again, during the summer) at the outrageous and fatuous pronouncements of Jacques Parizeau, premier of Quebec. “Who does Parizeau think he is?”, said Johnson, “an archbishop or something?” Are church leaders inherently outrageous and fatuous? Church leadership is to be patterned after the leadership/servanthood of Jesus Christ himself. He gives himself up to death even for those whose hearts are ice-cold and treacherous towards him. It takes diligence and patience to acquire a mind that thinks in Christian categories.

When our daughter Catherine returned from Hong Kong during July she told us she had had a terrific argument with her Chinese boyfriend. The argument concerned China’s practice of packaging human fetuses (10 to a package) and selling them for food. The Chinese people add ginger to the fetuses, mix them with pork, and eat them. Catherine’s boyfriend defended the practice, explaining that in a nation of 1.2 billion people anything that can be eaten must be eaten — or else people aren’t going to eat. The Chinese, he insisted, don’t have the luxury of fastidiousness.

Catherine told us she replied to her boyfriend, “The line has to be drawn somewhere, and your people don’t know where to draw it.” (I was surprised at Catherine’s vehemence, since I didn’t think she was particularly eager to draw lines.)

Once again there are several issues here: abortion, cannibalism, and the matter of what (who) is going to be eaten next. Will a corpse be eaten next, provided it didn’t die from disease but was rather a traffic accident victim?

The story Catherine related to us had already been sent to North America by means of UPI, the international wire service that sends news items around the world. Not one North American newspaper picked up the story from the UPI wire; not one! A Christian Publication, First Things, did pick it up and print it. And therefore I was able to read more about this abhorrent development. Dr. Qin, a physician in Shenzhen, said she herself had eaten 100 fetuses in the last six months. Said Dr. Qin, “We don’t carry out abortions just to eat fetuses, [but they would be] wasted if not eaten.”

Not one North American newspaper wrote up the story handed to it by the UPI wire service. At both the Ottawa Summer School of Theology and McMaster University Divinity College I have lectured students — and illustrated my lectures profusely — that the manner in which the media handle news has more than a taint of propaganda. In both institutions students have looked upon me as an extremist. Discernment is needed if we are going to identify the distortions and assess the nature of the distortions that the media foist on us every day.

If the purpose of Sunday School is to foster faith, it must be understood that the faith so fostered includes the foundations of that Christian mind which adults must acquire.

IV: — Tell me: do you think I am possessed of faith in Jesus Christ? However slight or weak or sin-riddled my faith might be, do you think it is nonetheless genuine? And the faith that possesses me: has it issued in a Christian understanding beyond the kindergarten level? If so, then my Sunday School teachers are to be honoured and thanked.

Where are my teachers now?

Misses Dorothy Greenshields and Grace Eby are enjoying that reward which Jesus has promised to faithful servants.

June Hocking is the assistant minister at Knox United Church, Calgary. I didn’t know she was there until I spoke at Knox Church one weekend last October. During the question and answer period after my first address she stood up and asked, “Do you know who it is?” Did she think I was ever going to forget the person who first acquainted me with what St.Paul calls “the word of the cross”?

Catherine Heasman is the secretary in the chaplain’s office at Scarborough Grace Hospital. As often as I have reason to phone the chaplain’s office there I speak with her and thank her again.

Carlton Carter has long since retired from the Scarborough Board of Education. With his remarkable administrative abilities he has volunteered himself to his congregation as unsalaried church-administrator. It’s important that I tell him what he meant to me when I was 14. His three adult offspring worship nowhere themselves and make no profession of faith whatsoever. I have heard him ask, “Where did I fail?” He needs to hear from me that he hasn’t failed.

This leaves Gordon and Jean Fairbank. My little book, Making Sense of Christian Faith, is dedicated to them. The inscription reads, “To Jean and Gordon Fairbank, because they were there.” When I was 19 several developments precipitated me into a dark valley that was near-hideous and that lasted longer than I ever thought it would. Jean and Gordon kept me going, one fumbling foot in front of the other, until I emerged on the other side. They stood with me at the edge of the abyss, and what I owe them I shall never repay.

Still, I do what I can. Two or three years ago Jean was waiting alone, at night, for a train in the Rosedale subway station, when she was “swarmed” and assaulted by a band of hooligans. She was badly “unhinged” by the incident. I visited her several times afterwards, lending her whatever comfort I could. Last April her husband asked me if I would serve on the board of trustees of an institution related to the University of Manitoba. I said “yes”. (Don’t worry, it involves only one, two-day trip to Winnipeg each year.) Of course I agreed to help Gordon. Street-wise people are fond of saying, “What goes around, comes around.”

When I am on my deathbed and there is little breath in me, I shall nonetheless summon what little breath I have and pronounce “Blessed!” those men and women who were my Sunday School teachers and without whom I should today be who knows where, and be who knows what.

                                                                                            Victor A. Shepherd
September 1995