Martin Cohen. This is a post about my teacher. Well, of course, he is one of many of my teachers. Looking back there have been a number of teachers who have shaped my life, perhaps no more profoundly than those within my own family. Beyond the family there was surely Fred Lepkin, my high school history teacher. How to describe Mr. Lepkin? One of a kind! Among many others in seminary there was Ralph Donnelly who taught us about the life and identity of the pastor and the wonder of a local congregation. What did they have in common? They were passionate about their subject, they were totally engaging as people and they encouraged and challenged me to grow.
Then, after I had graduated and been ordained and was considered 'grown up' I met another teacher. It was in the late 1980's when Walter Brueggemann came to be the guest lecturer at VST's G. Peter Kaye lecture series. Walter's lectures were a tour de force. I had never heard anything like his powerful interpretation of the psalms. The Chapel of the Epiphany was overflowing. In fact, a television was set up in the auditorium beneath the Chapel and that room was also packed for each lecture. In the years following I grabbed anything that Walter published because it inevitably spoke to my struggle to be a pastor and to preach. I regularly found his voice in the Journal for Preachers. Then, when I began looking for a place to study for the Doctor of Ministry degree, I realized that the Journal for Preachers was a publication of Columbia Seminary and that Walter taught there. That is how I returned to the classroom in my mid-forties and how I, along with a crowd of preachers like me, have come to call Walter my teacher.
Why this post now? Well I just happened upon the audio and video of an interview with Walter that was recently broadcast on the program "On Being" on American Public Media. It is available online under the title Prophetic Imagination. The interview is classic Walter, with his passion, energy and humour unabated. Like my other important teachers Walter is passionate about his subject - namely, God - and is engaging, encouraging and challenging. I remember the way in which he gave himself fully to his classes, spending every coffee break and meal time in deep conversation with his students, always asking them about their ministry and its challenges and joys. I remember his letters, too. Even as email began to take over personal communication Walter remained an inveterate correspondent by post. Any letter written to him generated a thoughtful response without delay. It was if we pastors in his classroom weren't so much students with a teacher as parishioners with a pastor. It was Walter's prayers at the beginning of each class that set the tone. They were written and delivered with care, urgency and honesty. A new prayer for each new day together. I remember the day when a letter from Walter arrived in the mail box wondering if I might be willing to edit his collection of prayers for a book. What a gift that assignment was and continues to be. People often stop to tell me that the prayers in "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth" are an important part of their own life of prayer.
The last time that I was able to be in Walter's classroom was in 2008 when he was a guest lecturer at Regent College's Laing Lectures. Once again the lecture hall overflowed into an adjacent classroom. Since then we have continued to correspond. That correspondence has been especially important to me in this past year as I grow accustomed to life with multiple myeloma. Like so many other students I am blessed to call Walter my teacher, friend and pastor.
Here is one of the prayers from "Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth" (page 35) -
The God we would rather have
We are your people and mostly we don't mind,
except that you do not fit any of our categories.
We keep pushing
trying to make you fit the God we would rather have,
and every time we distort you that way
we end up with an idol more congenial to us.
In our more honest moments of grief and pain
we are very glad that you are who you are,
and that you are toward us in all your freedom
what you have been toward us.
So be your faithful self
and by your very engagement in the suffering of the world,
transform the world even as you are being changed.
We pray in the name of Jesus,
who is the sign of your suffering love. Amen.
(In anticipation of reading Jeremiah 4-6 / 2000)