There is an underhand notion from critics of Evangelicals of my persuasion that theological study is an exercise that is at best a never-ending, ivory-tower pondering, and at worst a weapon for torturing or wounding others. Some criticisms are old-hat, others hot off the press. To pretend that no one has ever fallen into either of these traps would be irresponsible of us, of course. But, I think theology is more than this. It’s caring for souls, in ordinary moments, on bad days, even to those who don’t own a bookshelf.
Allow me to tell you a story.
A few months ago, I made my way to the education room (“Mr. Zach’s Room,” as they call it), for another totally normal Tuesday tutoring session at Boys and Girls Club. These kids are hurting. I tried to remember that every day I walked in there, and this was one of those days where I got too impatient to let that truth affect how I managed my emotions. Kids screamed, running in and out. Constant taddling over absolutely nothing at all. Crying. Fighting. All in a room where reading and math are supposed to be our focus.
I sat with a girl (we’ll call her Ariel in this post), working on her math homework. Ariel is a really sweet kid, but unpredictable. Some days are great, others not so much. Some days she spends “on the wall” (a method of punishment at BGCA…making kids sit on the wall quietly is horrific). Other days, she is bouncing off the walls with laughter.
I saw these sort of rollercoaster moments with Ariel when it came to her schoolwork as well. Some days, she’s sharp and focused. Other days, utterly distracted and frustrated. Some days, she demands my help, others she lies about not having homework. On this particular day, we were working on some three-digit subtraction problems. She is in the third grade, but (like most of her peers) does not operate at the level she should for her age.
After quite some time of back-and-forth pleading with her to do her work, Ariel lost her cool and stormed to the other side of the room, to a little nook with stairs, out of my sight. I took a moment to catch my cool, and walked over to her. She’s slumped down, hands covering her face.
I began to tell Ariel, subtly but surely, that it was time for her to come back to her seat. “Ariel,” I said, “You can do this. You’re smart.” It was the truth, but at the time, I was really thinking, stop acting this way and get back to work.
She said, “No I’m not.” I disagreed with her assessment. She sniffled.
I did a double take. Is she crying? What did I say?
I knelt down. “Ariel,” I said with a tone that found concern.
Ariel was crying. I continued to ask her what was wrong, with no reply. I watched her physically try to express what was upsetting her, and every time she did, her soft sobs turned into violent crying.
As I began to suspect the abuse behind her tears, my fears were realized when she finally spoke:
“My Mom tells me I’m stupid.”
Always be prepared to make a defense for the hope that is in you, even when it’s to a third grader from a broken home.
“Lord, help me,” I prayed silently. What do I say to this young person who is altogether different than me? How do I offer hope to a girl whose home life extremely differs from the one I experienced?
I turned to the attributes of God.
After a few moments of wiping tears away, sitting in silence, and being there, I prepared a question. “Ariel…do you know how I know you’re smart?”
“How?” she asked.
“Have you ever read about how God created us?”
I pulled out my Bible (maybe that was against policy, I’m not sure), and read Genesis 1:26 to her. This was different than her school books. Countless theologians have spent their days writing books, examining the Hebrew, and pondering the depths of these verses. But, this Tuesday, all I wanted was to ask Ariel a simple question:
“What do you think it means to be made like God?”
She thought for a moment. “Does it mean we act like God?”
“In a lot of ways, yes!” I affirmed. What Ariel was learning was about the incommunicable and communicable attributes of God, and the imago Dei. I did not use those words. I didn’t have to. I explained to her that wisdom, knowledge, –– “being smart” –– comes from God being smart and making us smart. I told her that she could trust this to be true, even for her, because our Bibles are the absolute truth. We can trust the Bible to tell us the truth more than anyone else, even our parents, even ourselves, because it is God speaking to us. She saw me reading what God actually said Himself, in His book.
We didn’t have a “come to Jesus” moment. There was no praying of the prayer, no conversion that afternoon. But I firmly believe that in this moment, Ariel saw herself, to some degree, as smart, and for that she could thank God. And, if it’s any consolation, Ariel walked down the stairs and finished her homework.
I share that story at length because I think it drives home something important about what theology is.
Theology is not simply the privilege of studious, academic introverts who have nothing better to do. It is for the least of these, the despondent, the poor, the marginalized. It is for me, and for Ariel. It is intended to bring comfort to my heart, and to Ariel’s. If our moments of ministry to the hurting matter, theology has to matter.