“[T]he collective story advanced by a religious movement will continue to inform succeeding generations anew only as theological beliefs are demonstrated to have relevance for personal and social ethics. Said experientially, such a community must demonstrate that truth informs lived experience; that a way of believing results in a way of being; and that word becomes flesh. In short, the thesis argues that the Adventist story may be passed on to our children only as this doing of theology and ethics becomes of one piece. “
“The thesis may be deemed less than profound. Yet, given the nature of human enterprise, the thesis calls for commitments that make profound demands on our life together.”
Charles Teel, “Can Mission Stories of an Adventist Past Foster a Shared Adventist Future?” Working Draft, November 17, 1989, ASRS
Twenty years ago on a Friday night on a Friday night, about 30 years into his 50-year professorship which began in 1967, a few dozen college students hunkered down with blankets on the cold sidewalks of La Sierra University where we were expected to spend the night. Conveniences, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, was forbidden as Dr. Charles Teel, Jr. was walking around the campus to ensure compliance. The next morning, we were required to attend the La Sierra University Church and disperse into the congregation.
Earlier in the week of the summer intensive, we had been introduced to Dr. Terrence Roberts an African American Adventist who recalled his experiences as one of the Little Rock Nine who attended a previously segregated school in 1957. We listened to the story of a fellow student who had been homeless and visited the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena to observe their humanitarian work. In preparation, we read about the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Dr. Teel turned being plain-spoken into an art form. He seemed to have a practiced disdain for the stained-glass prose of the formal church. As a student, I imagined that he probably spoke a lot like Mark Twain did, driving home his point with a dose of sarcasm and a hint of irreverence. If students spoke too quietly, he would loudly admonish them to “speak in round pear-shaped tones emanating from the diaphragm, ” and late students were told that “I’d rather you drink beer than be late to my class.”
Often, students would go scrambling to pick up handouts that he had flung out to them “like the leaves of autumn” – something that many, but not all of us, found hilarious.
But there were other lessons that stuck with us – he leaned over to grab his shoes to point out how it was impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You needed help, and then, in turn, you needed to help others. He spoke of his version of Hiram Edson’s vision in a cornfield in which he looked up and saw the letters “C O O P” on the silos and realized that people working together helped bring about success in a community. This was not a “melting pot” but rather a “salad” where each person could bring something unique to the table and where diversity was valued.
His passion in the classroom was the minor prophets – particularly the biblical books of Amos and Micah. He spoke of justice, and mercy and humility, and how being “religious” did not mean anything if you didn’t “defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)
Biblical prophets had two roles – one was to foretell the future, and the other was to “forthtell,” or get the people lined up with doing the right thing. The latter were particularly unpopular, and they experienced a high fatality rate.
Amos taught that religious rituals were not as important being just, and justice was to be given out regardless of wealth or position. This is what God wanted from Israel:
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times,
for the times are evil.
Seek good, not evil, that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.
Amos 5:12-15 (NIV)
When you’re in college, there is tremendous pressure to do your work, get your grade, and graduate. There’s a sense that you just do what you do to get a grade and move on, but looking back years later, you realize that what you learned actually goes beyond the surface and affects how you think about the world.
Time flies quickly, and I only saw Dr. Teel a few times after I graduated – the last time I spoke with him was when I ran into him a decade ago at the Stahl Center on the La Sierra University campus on a Saturday afternoon while giving my wife a tour. But that’s the nature of education – most do not have the opportunity or desire to marinate in the academic environment for the rest of their lives. You learn and then you go out and live your life. Then new students come in and take your place and your name moves into the archives. But certain people make a difference in your life and the lessons stay with you forever.
So what did I learn from Dr. Teel? I wrote my final paper on religious liberty (no surprise there), and he made it clear to me that religious liberty is not only about speaking to the future, but also and even more importantly to the present. It has a tremendous social justice component.
The freedom to follow religious rituals only matters in the larger scheme insofar as it makes you a better person. Doing the right thing often means that you take big risks – it’s not always the easy choice. If you want to make a difference in the world, say what you mean and mean what you say. You are not an island – not within your church, not within your world, and what you do matters.
I’ll close with Dr. Teel’s conclusion in his article “The Cosmic ‘Phew’” that Spectrum published in their Winter 2012 issue.
“As we mine the stories of our sacred texts we walk hand in hand with persons of faith and communities of faith who from primordial times have reached out in an attempt to touch the face of God. We feel a bond with these who have gone before in search of meaning, purpose, wholeness, salvation, redemption, and hope. We discover with Abraham and Moses and David and Ruth and Mary and Paul that we are that infant in the crib who cries out for material symbols/things. We are that youth in search of the right information symbols/facts. And we are that maturing adult who seeks meaning system/metaphors in the sacred text and in life. We are part of that homo sapien family that recognizes our nakedness, that begs to be soothed by words from the Divine in the cool of the day, that yearns to experience meaning as Word becomes flesh. On this exciting search, may we have the luxury—not once and for all, but from time to time and on a “for now” basis—to breathe in bushels of air and to exhale in whoops of sheer delight as we belt out an unguarded and cosmic ‘Phew!’”