Practical Theology

I have a love affair with education and learning new things. This has not always the case. I barely graduated high school. The day of graduation, I bent the truth (or in some cases completely disregarded it) with several of my teachers to explain (and hopefully pardon) my various absences. Somehow, the appropriate number of absences were excused. This gave me enough leverage to graduate hours later.

It wasn’t until I was 25 in Bible College that the Lord enlivened my mind to love to learn new things and to apply myself to study, in particular to study the Bible. However, I have been learning over the years that scholastic achievements are not effective in and of themselves. Without a practical outworking in my life and other’s lives, knowledge stays on a dusty shelf. If this is the case, knowledge remains a wall full of books – they look pretty, but they are of little practical use.

One of my early lessons in practical theology occurred in the jungles of Ecuador in 2008…

The sheets felt foreign to my skin, and the bed was firm and unforgiving. As I lay in the darkness of night, I tried to adjust my eyes to pick up objects around this unfamiliar room. Itchiness radiated from the tip of my toe, crept up my calf and threatened to molest my knee. I didn’t have any anti-itch cream so I reached for the same miracle tincture that had worked the night before – toothpaste. Whether it was the menthol or some other element of the toothpaste, it helped to abate the incessant itching enough for me to fall into a half sleep.

At one point I woke up to the sound of something scurrying into the room to find a place directly under the bed in which I lay. After a moment of silence, as if this enigma was trying to go unnoticed again, I heard a crunching sound that reminded me of potato chips being eaten. Rallying my courage to push past my bent toward self-preservation in the face of the unknown, I reached for the flashlight near the head of my pillow.

Slowly, I shimmied halfway out of the mosquito net to shine the light underneath the bed. Caught in the spotlight was a cat gnawing away at what I believed was a bat. Satisfied that my life was in no real danger, I secured myself in the sanctuary of the mosquito net and tried to chase illusive sleep, hoping that the late night snack going on under my bed wouldn’t keep me up too long.

Morning revealed what darkness had concealed – a little village called Babahoyo in the El Oriente of Ecuador. I was a guest in the home of my new friend, L, and her family. Their home stood fifteen feet off the ground on sturdy wood stilts. The elevation served to keep us safe from the sundry creatures roaming the ground. Although, clearly, our elevated position didn’t guard against late night visits from the house cat.

The home had openings on all four sides. As one walks up the stairs and surveys the floorplan, one can look straight through the living room to the forest walls on the other side. Many people spend thousands of dollars for an aesthetically pleasing dining room, but L’s unassuming home had an unmatched view looking out over the garden of plantains, yucca and exotic flowers.

I had never seen flowers quite like these before. It was as if God had decided to have a bit of fun. The large, odd-shaped petals were reaching away from one another. What started with a painted swash of yellow was finished off by a flick of the brush, spraying electric orange across each corolla. Each splash of color, haphazardly perfect, seems to reflect how I often view my own life – often messy, yet beautiful and divinely orchestrated.

I had met L in the classroom of IBCI. In Spanish, the acronym stands for Instituto Biblico Capacitation Internacional. In English, the school is referred to as International Bible Cassette Institute. L was involved in a three year program at the end of which she would be equipped with a thorough understanding of biblical scripture. Every month she would ride the bus for five hours from her village of Babahoyo to participate in classes in Tena, a bustling city in the eastern jungles of Ecuador.

L was a fiery woman, not afraid to lock eyes and share her opinion. She had a passion for the Bible and loved telling everyone about the change Jesus had brought about in her life.

Each day I stayed with L, she and I would sit at her table discussing the Bible. She would talk to me in Spanish as if teaching a class. I prided myself in my knowledge and handling of the scriptures, nevertheless, now I received her pitiful stares when I could not return meaningful soliloquies in Spanish. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge, I assured myself. The problem was that I couldn’t completely understand what she was saying in Spanish, nor return a meaningful response in the same. She would ask me a question (only half of which I understood) and expect me to pour out a sermon. I could feel my positive attitude heading on a precipitous decline during these sessions. Bouts of pride and wounded ego were rearing their ugly head in my heart. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.

In retrospect I see the lesson for me was very practical. It was not about my knowledge of the Bible, but rather the posture of my spirit and my attitude that was being refined. As I look back over those times with L, I am sad that I missed the point. It is one thing to have mental prowess in a great many things, but knowledge that simply remains in the recesses of the mind does not blossom into practical application. The flowers in my garden needed pruning.

My descent into humility continued. One day I was sitting in the open dining room reading a book written by my friend Sandi called, Groovy Girls in Today’s World, while L was outside doing laundry. I had offered to help with the laundry, but I was turned down. My pride still being incrementally washed away, I had the distinct impression she didn’t trust me to do it right.

I came upon a part in the book that described different girls as cheerleaders and prom queens, and others as wallflowers. The cheerleader/prom queens are the beautiful, talented people that get all of the attention and the wallflowers are the others, the dregs of high school society who find themselves on the sidelines. I definitely was no cheerleader in high school, but in the years since, I had developed the attitude of a cheerleader in life.

As I was turning these things over in my mind and gazing out over the landscape, I focused my attention on two chickens in L’s yard. One of them was a beautiful, plump chicken with robust feathers, radiant yellow legs and beak, and a bright red wattle. The other was a scrawny, sickly looking chicken with patches of missing feathers all over. My hyperactive imagination kicked into full gear about a chicken yard scenario with the healthy looking chicken as the Prom Queen and the other one was, well, the Wallflower. This melodrama faded and I dove back into reading. No more than ten minutes later, L called to me. I went to the stairs and noticed that she was triumphantly holding high a dead chicken by its feet. She had killed the Prom Queen!

That day L taught me how to clean a chicken. We removed all of the once beautiful feathers, now crumpled and smeared with dirt, with a pot of boiling water poured over the body. This process loosened the feathers, which easily came off with a tug. Like tights, we stripped back the yellow skin covering the legs. We cut off the beak. I then proceeded to cut off the red wattle. All that had once been beautiful about the Prom Queen was no more. For the next several days we had chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every now and again I would glance out over the side of the house and see the Wallflower happily searching for her next meal.

After I left L’s home on my seven hour trip back to the capital city of Quito, I turned these things over in my mind. I thought I had attained some modicum of biblical knowledge up to that point, but my thoughts and my actions were still being transformed by that knowledge. I knew how many books there are in the Bible, but my heart was in a continual process to reflect those books. The pomp and beauty of the Prom Queen chicken did not extend or enrich life. All that was outwardly beautiful about the Prom Queen was easily stripped away and forgotten. Books on a shelf, perfect and ordered, do not enrich life – lives to be read like a book do.

There are times when thinking on my shortcomings that I feel a wreck for where I am and where I would like to be, but the flowers of L’s garden, appearing imperfect in symmetry, nevertheless, are an intricate work of art. Messy, but beautiful. I will be in this process of growth until I see my Lord face to face. Among other means of change, knowledge gained and put into use will continue to be a humbling tool, chipping away at this vessel, wielded by the Master Craftsman’s hands.