At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Push

I fully realize the bizarre nature of going from more recent to more chronologically distant in my pantheon of great teachers, but keep in mind--my blog, my rules!

Whereas Tom Foley, former Covenant School chaplain, was and is a fantastic mentor, another individual has been instrumental in my life by modeling how to think well. Three times I was blessed to  grab the scholarly and pastoral C. John (Jack) Collins for various courses during my years at Covenant Theological Seminary in the mid-90s. Since I have a father who taught Old Testament at the seminary level himself, I like to think I can recognize which OT profs are the gold in the bank. Jack Collins is right up there with the purest, most dazzling bullion.

To describe Dr. Collins is to dance in the fields of happy wonder and Socratic discipline. First of all, the man is comfortable in either the theological or the scientific world. Collins snagged both his B.S. and M.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (yes, readers can scoop your jaw off the floor) before eventually following a call to the ministry. He worked through another master's degree at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary in Tacoma and eventually served as a church planter in Spokane, Washington. He also managed to score a Ph. D. from Liverpool before landing on Covenant Seminary's campus at the same time I did in early 1993. He is a voluminous reader and a phenomenal writer (author of books on Adam & Eve, miracles, and the relationship between science and faith).

It wasn't until I was halfway through my seminary studies that I finally climbed aboard the Collins Express and held on for a wild ride. Although three classes (Old Testament Historical Books; an intensive Hebrew reading class; and Old Testament Prophets) were all I had with the man, he left an indelible imprint.

First of all, the man made you work. Like a pack animal carrying the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some would think this worthy of complaint, but I appreciated it. If we were heading into ministry of some kind, we were setting ourselves up for all sorts of hardship and difficulty. The sooner our sensibilities were used to bashing through a wall and doing some hard academic work, we definitely weren't going to survive meetings with difficult church elders, work through difficult Scripture passages in sermon preparation, or be able to faithfully counsel parishioners through tragedy.

An example of this was how you prepared for a Collins test. He called them "unit quizzes" in Prophets class and to date, this is the only time I felt he lied to us. They were the equivalent of exams. Getting ready for them would leave me feeling like John Belushi after a crazy night at Delta House (Could this be the rarest of oddities: A connection between seminary study and Animal House?). I normally could be quite efficient in test prep, but Jack Collins strapped a quarry load of TNT to that modus operandi and blew it straight to kingdom come. For my Prophets "unit quizzes", I'd have to study at least ten hours. At least! To top it off, Dr. Collins would have us memorize Old Testament passages and write them out on the test.

No problem, you say? Memory work is to be expected. True. But did I neglect to tell you we had to memorize and write out those verses in Hebrew? Mastering that would take at least four of the ten hours of study. But that re-taught me an important credo: If success and excellence are worth it, then they are worth your unencumbered and passionate pursuit. As long as it takes.

It was Dr. Collins who told us that the study and discussion of the Biblical text would bring about an exchange of ideas, but the truth was there. I remember when he said, "Disagree with my conclusions on something? Good! Build your case and be prepared for counter-arguments." From Dr. Collins, the pursuit of truth and understanding was a contact sport--an encouraging, eminently coachable contact sport--but yes, it could be an intellectual hockey game. And I grew to love it quickly, simply because I was pushed, prodded, and shoved to be greater than I was, even if he didn't realize he was doing it all along.

Not that he couldn't take some kindly inflicted damage. Once, when L.B. Graham and I were taking his intensive Hebrew reading class, Dr. Collins let it slip that he was suffering from a pulled rib muscle. Being the kind, compassionate souls we were, L.B. and I decided to have some fun with this, making enough jokes and causing the good Doctor to laugh so hard he probably kept re-damaging the pulled muscle. Dr. Collins was certainly patient enough with me when I would bring soup in a bread bowl to class along with some Irish cream-scented coffee that caused him to bemoan the gruel they had in the faculty coffee pots.

But he could dish things right back. At the end of our last year at seminary, about eight of us gathered one evening to watch Spinal Tap (you know, typical seminarian cinematic fare) and then L.B. and I convinced everyone to come along late at night to the Collins homestead. While the family slept, we descended on their suburban home with bar soap and plastic tableware. Dr. Collins and his wife Dianne (yes, John Cougar Mellencamp fans...their names are Jack and Dianne) awoke the next morning to soap-inscribed Hebrew lettering all over their driveway and a lawn filled with knives, forks, and spoons driven into the turf.

I at least thought he'd not discovered the cutlery until he mowed the grass, but I felt we were in the clear. Until I got my Prophets exam back in the seminary mail room the next week. Taped to it was a red plastic fork, and next to that were the words "You should be aware that someone has been forging your Hebrew handwriting."

Guilty as charged.

It was you, Dr. Collins, who taught me how to tackle Hebrew well. But you taught me so much more. You showed me how to tackle difficulties with force and skill. You pushed me beyond what I thought were my capabilities. And that has bled over into my teaching career, my thinking, and being a husband and a father.

And because of your place in all that, I am eternally grateful. Because you pushed me.

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