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Growing in Wisdom and Knowledge...for Life!
(Article first appeared in the August 24, 2009 issue of the Christian Courier.)
Simply Google the term “lifelong learning” and you will discover that there are over a million web pages devoted to the subject. Lifelong learning is most important in our world where the growth of human knowledge and culture is rapidly moving forward. We can be sidelined by those in this culture who are uninterested in the issues of forty or fifty years ago. It is a problem that faces pastors and churches as they struggle to keep abreast of the rapidly changing state of the world. In light of this, many churches and seminaries turn to lifelong learning to sustain pastoral excellence and congregational excitement for the Gospel’s relevance in our culture.
Lifelong learning is a necessity as we address the ever-changing world around us. For example, when I was in seminary in the 70’s, a debate was going on about the morality of using a (then very scarce) machine called a ventilator to keep humans alive. Today, the ventilator is a commonly available tool utilized in every western hospital when people cannot breathe for themselves. No longer is the debate about the moral use of ventilators immediately relevant. Today the discussion is focused on who is going to pay for the necessary use of the machine. A commitment to lifelong learning will keep us up-to-date on the issues of the culture around us.
Many of us find our lives are richer when we take an opportunity to become lifelong learners. In the arena of the church, I believe that God desires us to be lifelong learners who journey with him into his future. However, we often settle for a lackluster spirituality. We are content to stay put, and live as though history itself is stagnant. This is a spirituality that lacks the desire to grow in godliness. In the first letter to Timothy, we find Paul encouraging Timothy to train himself for godliness. If we look at several Scriptural stories we find: Abram and Sarai on a new journey in their old age, Jacob meeting God on his wanderings, and Paul (known for his pursuit of the mission of God) geographically advancing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. If I might just address pastors for a moment: this journey with God in our own lives as pastors who are seeking excellence means we cannot settle for what we have been in the past. God calls us to walk along with him in history.
Before I list ways to journey with God, and therefore actively being a lifelong learner, I first admit that this takes time. I have the privilege of teaching philosophy and world religions for the University of Phoenix online. My students struggle to balance work, family, community involvement, and study; yet they find great satisfaction in completing a course. They seek training for a better life than they would have without their commitment of time and effort. Paul uses the Greek word from which we get gymnasium to talk about training in his letter to Timothy. That was a place where a person would go to learn the physical skills that a well rounded person ought to have. It took a commitment to training to actually gain the competitive skills. In our walk with Jesus, we cannot settle for less.
The reason I believe we are called to lifelong learning in the Christian faith is that Jesus appeals to us to follow him. That call sounds across the centuries to our ears today. We are called to devote our lives to Jesus. We need to carve out the time to walk with him, listen to him, and be taught by him. Only then we will grow in our understanding of ourselves and of God. And we will experience God deep in our hearts.
Once we have decided we are going to spend the time and engage ourselves in training in godliness, we can begin. The first thing to do is to read God’s Word consistently. Without that, any other learning we do will be missing the single most important factor--the God dimension. With this first step firmly in place your learning can go in many directions. Here are some ideas you can pursue:
Pick up a “deep” book and read for 20 minutes a day. (Sorry moms, Thomas the Tank Engine books do not count.) You can read between 10 and 20 books a year by just giving it a little time. Keep track of what you read. You will feel a great sense of accomplishment as the list grows. I have kept a running account of the books I have read since completing my formal education. It numbers over 600 volumes. The list is a telling way to see which years I was lazy and which years I was stretching my horizons by reading books that taught me new things. Librarians have found that over 50% of all college graduates will never again read a complete book after graduation. Lifelong learners need to challenge the trend. I hope you are among them!
Volunteer to teach in your church’s education program this coming year. You will get to know some new brothers and sisters in Christ, and you will learn a great deal about what you teach. Whether you teach adults, youth, or children, your life will be enriched by the experience. Pastors, offer to teach an adult group; then, choose a topic that will force you to read new material. You will grow!
Ask a person older than you to be your prayer partner on a weekly basis. Inform them that you need the accountability. Then begin to pray. Use Scripture as the basis for your prayers. You could use the Book of Common Prayer. Or work your way through Space for God. Find a way to stretch yourselves in your prayer life. You will get to know God much more personally, and you will gain a friend who shares your joy in the Lord as you pray.
Enroll in a course that is about something you have never studied before. You will expose yourself to new ideas and new perspectives on the world. It will give you lots of new thoughts to discuss at the dinner table and with friends over coffee. Your world will never be the same!
Become a community volunteer. All areas, from small villages to large cities, have children who need a Christ-like adult in their lives. The homeless need someone like the carpenter’s Son who will care. The destitute need a Jesus follower filled with compassion. The foolish need a wise and godly counselor in whom the Proverbs come to life. Begin this life and you will discover that God has a heart for all humanity. We do well to follow him as he leads us to society’s outcasts if only to grow our own walk with Jesus.
You will be amazed at what you will learn if you begin to do just one or two of these. It will set you on the path to enlarging your sense of who God is in your life. It will revitalize your walk with God. You will never want to stop learning of the Lord’s goodness and his Mission to our lost world.
Bob Zomermaand is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of North America. He has been involved in the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative for several years.