Thanking My Teachers: National Teacher Appreciation Week

This week (May 7-11, 2012) is National Teachers Appreciation Week, and I would like to introduce you to and say a few words about, some of the teachers who have influenced me. Now, I'm not going to become a holiday blogger who issues thanks to someone every holiday, but these teachers, fourteen in sum, are folks who, at some point and in some way, have contributed to my journey of becoming a teacher. Now, I must say, there are countless folks who have taught me things, whom I have not listed here. That is because they are not, in the formal sense, teachers. In other words, the people mentioned here are persons from academic settings. Indeed, there are many people who have played formative roles in my life, that were not teachers in an academic institution. However, in keeping with the theme of National Teachers Appreciation Week, I will focus on those in academic institutions.

Lance Robinson: "Mr. Robinson" or "Coach Robinson" as we called him in middle school, was my mathematics teacher. I remember him as an easy-going guy. I liked him quite a bit. Despite the fact that, to this day, I'm still terrible at math, there was one thing that Lance said, that still stands out to me over twenty years later, and which I believe was formative for me. The particular comment he made came on a typical day of middle school after we had just taken an exam. I believe I scored a grade somewhere in the "B" range, which was quite good for me. Anyway, it was near the end of class and we were waiting for the bell to ring while we were also having free discussion time. At some point, a student asked Lance, "Which of us students were you most like?" Leaning back in his chair, he looked up for a bit as if he were thinking and reflecting, and then responded: "Halcomb. I think Halcomb reminds me most of myself at your age; I see a lot of myself in him."

Now, I don't know if that was a good or bad thing, but either way I do remember it being formative. I do recall him following that up by saying, "Halcomb, you're a good student, but like me, you often do what it takes to just get by; I was the same way." When it came to mathematics, he was spot on; that comment is still true to this day. Regardless, I took Lance's remark to heart. That I reminded my teacher of himself, and that my teacher ended up being a pretty cool guy, well, that was flattering to me. And looking back, from the perspective of over twenty years later, that seems like one of the first formative points (in terms of heading down the road to becoming a teacher) for me. If it is true that you become what you admire, then this was a moment that either directly or indirectly, set me on a path to becoming a teacher. Of course, I didn't know that at the time, but again, looking back, it makes sense. So, I want to say thanks to good ol' Coach Robinson for being my teacher. I also want to say, it is quite astounding how little statements and moments like that, which seem mundane at the time, can be so influential in a student's life. In fact, this holds true in just about any realm. It reminds me that, as I prepare to teach, just how influential the things I say and do might be.

Joe Kozar: It was in ninth grade, my first year of high school, that I met Joe Kozar. He was my English teacher, and one of the best teachers in the entire school system. That's why I wanted to be his student for all of my English related courses. However, students didn't get to pick their teachers, and beyond my freshman year, each year that I had to take an English course, I was placed with a different teacher. Needless to say, I only got to know "Mr. Kozar" as a teacher during my first year of high school. I loved his class because he encouraged us to be creative. We made movies, read great literary classics, and actually had fun doing it. I still remember reading Hemingway in his class!

Beyond helping me appreciate literature, Kozar was a kind, humble, and encouraging man. Despite the fact that he was only my teacher for a short time, I remember that after my junior year, when I became a Christian, I found out he was also a Christian. I was super encouraged by this. I felt like I was in a place with only a few Christians, and he was someone I could go to. I still recall being astounded that a teacher in a public school system like ours would be a Christian. Then I learned that not only was he a Christian, but he was also a pastor. I visited him several times to talk about faith matters in my own life, and the struggles of being a teenage Christian in our high school. He was always encouraging and willing to listen. I also remember heading back to Bible college one weekend and taking some back roads through the countryside, which I had never been on before. As I was driving, I saw Kozar checking the church mailbox. So, I stopped and talked to him. He showed me around his church. It was a pleasant little visit and surprise. So, I want to say thanks to Joe for being my teacher, and encouraging me. Being able to be a teacher plus a Christian was (as odd as it might seem now), eye-opening for me. I also think it was influential.

Lori Tingle: Formerly known as "Ms. Collins," Lori was my high school French teacher. Lori was very kind, and very encouraging to me. After having taken Spanish 1 & 2 with another teacher, a class which I didn't do too well in, I found Lori's French classes much more inviting. In fact, after my wrestling match with Spanish, Lori made learning French quite enjoyable. Her fun, easy-going teaching style took a lot of the pressure off of learning a foreign language. When I was studying for my French Comps (for the Ph.D. studies) last year, I was grateful that I had taken her classes in high school because undoubtedly, some of my earlier studies came flooding back. To this day, I wonder just how much she might have influenced me in taking an interest in other languages. At this point I've studied 7 or 8 of them!

Beyond teaching me another language, Lori was a teacher I could talk to on a personal level. I don't know how often it is in high school that a student can share what's going on in their lives with a teacher, but I do know that was able to do this with Lori. There were several times when, during the course of high school, I had some tough things to deal with. I found a listening ear in Lori, and for that, I am grateful. More teachers need to have the patience and compassion that Lori had. Although Lori changed careers not long after I graduated, I can say that my time with her as a student was positive and formative. So, I want to say thank you to Lori for being an encouragement in my life. Of all the female teachers I've taken classes with, which is very few, you're one of the few from an academic setting that I can recall having a real impact on me.

David Fiensy: During my undergraduate studies at Kentucky Christian University, I had the privilege of taking courses with Dr. David Fiensy. Fiensy, a brilliant guy, has written several books on the life of Jesus, Mark's Gospel, and numerous academic articles. From my perspective, Fiensy is also a great educator. I loved his dry humor, which he always spiced up his teaching with. I've always respected any teacher who can inject humor into his or her lectures; Fiensy was great at this. It was a joy taking his courses on the New Testament. I have only come to respect David more and more over the years, as I see what it takes to be a good, sound scholar doing good, sound scholarly work. I can only aspire to be as solid of a Christian thinker as David is.

I must say, in my academic career, if there were one thing that I could go back and do over, it would probably be my undergraduate work. During my studies, I played sports, held a job, and was easily distracted by non-school related things. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a total screw up, and I didn't fail out of college. However, I think I simply had too much going on, and I lacked some of the academic maturity I now have. I wish I would have had the same discipline then as I do now. I say that because looking back, I think a guy like Fiensy had so much to offer and I didn't seize as much as I could have. Over the last few years, Fiensy has given me advice here and there, written me recommendations, and has encouraged me greatly. Just a few weeks ago, I saw him at a conference and he told me as he was walking out the door, "Hey, I'm proud of you! Keep up the good work!" That meant a lot to me. So, I want to say thanks to David for teaching me, encouraging me, and showing me what a good Christian scholar looks like.

Guthrie Veech: As with David Fiensy, I met Dr. Guthrie Veech during my undergraduate studies at Kentucky Christian University. Guthrie was my homiletics professor, and he is currently the president of St. Louis Christian College. I remember Guthrie as a super easy-going guy with a lot of creativity. He also loved using acronyms in his sermons (or for his sermon titles). To this day, I remember his "stock sermon" titled Encouragement, in which he always said "...the word 'courage' is hidden inside the word 'encouragement.'" Guthrie's courses were a complete joy for me. It is probably the case that I took his classes more seriously than any of my other classes, and that was probably because I just loved preaching so much.

Prior to entering Bible college, I had only preached one 10-minute sermon. So, getting to step into the pulpit for Guthrie's classes, well, those were very formative moments. Getting critical feedback from him and my classmates was invaluable. I think it was in Guthrie's classes that, for the first time, I really started to listen to sermons critically, that is, I began really thinking about what was being said. In turn, that made me try to choose my words more carefully. To this day, Guthrie still sends me random texts and emails to encourage me. In fact, I just received a text from him two weeks ago on a Sunday morning, asking what was going on with me these days. I can truly say that I appreciate that! So, thanks Guthrie, for helping kindle up that desire in me to preach. I still love preaching, and you've had a role in stoking that fire inside me to preach the Gospel!

Linda Lawson: During my time at Kentucky Christian University, one of my professors was Linda Lawson. Linda was an incredibly gentle spirit. She taught most of my Early Christian Education courses, that is, my classes concerned with elementary and youth ministries. It may well be the case that, of all of the teachers I've had in a higher education setting, Linda has proven to be the most kind and patient of them all. What I remember about Linda is that she was a good listener, she expected a lot from her students, and she cared deeply about how we, who were preparing to go into ministry, affected the church (especially the families in those churches).

I was saddened to hear a couple of years back that Linda was diagnosed with cancer. Yet, it brings me joy today to know that she is doing quite well, and that she has, in many ways, overcome! Despite the fact that I have not talked with Linda in many years, it is not surprising how even her bout with cancer has been a testimony of her faith to many of us. I can only hope and pray that, as a teacher, I will have Linda's gracious spirit and endurance. That is something I long to have. I do not want to simply be a teacher; I want to be a teacher who invests in his students, and who acts graciously toward them. So, I want to thank Linda for giving me something to aim for, and for her wonderful example as a good teacher, and great Christian woman.

Jerry Sumney: One of the most difficult times in my academic life was entering studies at Lexington Theological Seminary. There were a number of reasons that it was so trying: 1) I had come from a rather conservative undergraduate institution into a more liberal one, and 2) I had come from an undergraduate institution affiliated with the Independent Christian Churches, into a graduate institution affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. While the two movements have a long history, that history has not always been so good. While I was studying at Lexington Theological Seminary, I was also pastoring in an Independent Christian Church, and the church leaders were always concerned that I would be swayed or influenced by "the other side."  Needless to say, there was a bit of tension there. Put those two things together, and what I got was a time of great trials. However, I wouldn't trade my experience at LTS for anything. It helped me think more deeply, love more openly, and articulate myself more clearly.

One person who encouraged me through all of this tension was Jerry Sumney. Jerry is an accomplished New Testament scholar, and I respect him very much. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel during my MDiv, but Jerry came alongside me and helped me hang in there. I am forever grateful to him for that. Over the years, I have been able to stop by Jerry's office, call him up on the phone, have lunch with him, talk with him at conferences, and seek advice from him. One of the things I like most about Jerry is that he is very serious about his work, but also has a wonderful sense of humor. As I said above in relation to David Fiensy, in my view, this is an admirable trait for a teacher to have. There are three things that I can think of right off of the top of my head that, in regards to Jerry, have been influential in my life: 1) Seeing potential in students and drawing it out; 2) Challenging students to think past their presuppositions; and 3) Taking scholarship seriously, but not taking oneself too seriously. I can only hope that as a teacher, I will be able to embody these attributes as Jerry does. For these things and more, I want to say thanks to Jerry for being a formative person in my life, especially as I aspire to become a teacher.

Wes Allen: Dr. Allen was my advisor during my time at Lexington Theological Seminary. He was also my homiletics professor. Allen has written a number of homiletically oriented books, and is a very fine writer and preacher. I learned a lot in Allen's classes, and was challenged in so many ways. As with Veech's preaching courses, in Allen's classes we also had to preach in front of our peers and the professor. In Allen's classes my preaching was more scrutinized than ever, but it was, in so many ways, invaluable. It was in his courses that I really began to think about the social consequences that my sermons might have. I am still convinced think preachers need to constantly reflect on this relationship.

More than that, however, Allen really got me interested in the relationship between the community of faith and the sermon. I remember taking a class with him concerned with the "roundtable pulpit" where we worked through a draft of one of his books on this topic. Needless to say, Allen's interests became my own. Since then, I have sought creative ways to bring the preacher and congregation, sermon and laity, and interpretive process and practical implications together. In fact, my new book that is coming out next week (more on that soon!), deals directly with this topic. So, I want to say thanks for Wes Allen for challenging me through his teaching and writing. It is amazing that one class during one semester can have so much significance in a student's life (and career).

Jimmy Kirby: Looking back on my education, I realize that I have also not had many African American teachers. In fact, at this point, the only one I can think of is Dr. Jimmy Kirby. I studied with Jimmy at Lexington Theological Seminary, where he taught Christian Social Ethics. Among the many classes I took and enjoyed with Dr. Kirby, his course on Martin Luther King, Jr., was probably one of the most influential. I cannot even begin to describe the many ways that class enriched my life, so, I'll just say that I was incredibly blessed by it. I wish there had been more classes like that one!

Kirby's cool, laid back style, was something that I really liked. That, mixed with intensity and provocativeness, made for an incredibly enjoyable class. In Kirby's social ethics courses I was also introduced to thinkers on the fronts of Christianity and society like James Cone, W.E.B. DuBois, Michael E. Dyson, and Walter Rauschenbusch, among many others. My life has been enriched by reading the works of these thinkers. So, I say thank you to Dr. Jimmy Kirby for helping me see many of the links between Church & society. Your courses have a special place in the scope of my academic career!

Sharon Warner: Another one of my Christian Ed teachers was Dr. Sharon Warner. A super intelligent woman, Warner was one of the professors at LTS that challenged me the most. Entering into her classes, I was a very narrow-minded person. Instead of writing me off, she was patient with me. She didn't shy away from challenging me, but she did it in a spirit of kindness and gentleness. Even when I challenged her, probably more aggressively than I should have, she kept her cool. She didn't belittle me or disregard me. She handled me just the way she needed to, and I am very thankful for that! The amount of patience she had with me is nothing but admirable.

Warner's classes were always highly interactive. She tried to engage all of the senses, and loved hanging large sheets of paper with diagrams and notes all over the room. At the end of each session, we could visualize everything that we said and did during class. What a brilliant technique! In fact, now that I think about it, I wonder just how much that influenced me? To this day, I love using dry erase boards, chalkboards, etc., and having notes up all around the classroom. Those notes show our progress and our collective journey. So, I'm probably more influenced by her in that regard than I realize. So, I want to say thanks to Sharon for being an engaging teacher, and interacting with students at the level of utmost professionalism. That has all gone a long way for me!

Ben Witherington, III: I first heard of Ben Witherington when I was doing my last undergraduate course at Kentucky Christian University. In one of David Fiensy's courses, we used Witherington's Conflict & Community in Corinth Commentary. Then, when I was studying at Lexington Theological Seminary, I was able to take a crossover J-Term course at Asbury Theological Seminary; that is where I first met Ben. I suppose that was around 2005 or 2006. I liked that class so much that once I graduated from LTS, I decided to enroll at Asbury for the Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies program. I took as many courses with Ben as I could during that degree. My appreciation for his devotion to scholarship and the church only increased over time. While I had numerous offers from other schools to do Ph.D. work, I didn't really want to pass up the chance to study with Ben, so that factored into me choosing Asbury for postgraduate work. Today, Ben is my advisor and I am his lowly T.A.

Ben has been a great encouragement to me over the last half a decade or so. He encouraged me to apply to be a John Wesley Fellow, he found a great teaching situation for me in a church (his old Sunday school class), and has given me a number of opportunities to lead his classes at Asbury in his absence. There are many things to admire about Ben. For example, his publishing career is simply astounding. Yet, it is his presence in the classroom that I hope to emulate the most. Ben is an incredibly dynamic teacher; likely the best lecturer I've ever had. His mixture of energy, knowledge, and passion are unrivaled. I can only hope that some of Ben's versatility and dynamism will rub off on me! I also admire Ben's devotion to both the guild and the academy. Far too many professors are simply one or the other; Ben is both! Ben is a first-rate scholar, and a fine churchman, and that's what I want to be; that's how I envision myself. And I suppose that is much of what draws me to Ben. So, I want to say thanks to Ben for mentoring me, and for having so much faith in me. It really, really does, mean a lot to me!

David Bauer: One of the professors at Asbury who has always, for the duration of his career, had an open door policy (meaning that his office door is ALWAYS open to students) is Dr. David Bauer. Bauer, now a dean and professor at Asbury, has basically devoted his entire career to this academic institution. Much of what Asbury's biblical studies program is today is because of Bauer. When those of us who know Bauer think of him, we tend to also think "Inductive Bible Study" (IBS). Bauer, along with Robert Traina, have helped Asbury gain a strong reputation for IBS. Needless to say, it has influenced me greatly. In fact, my book (that I mentioned above, which will be coming out next week) is a direct result of IBS study with Bauer. In that regard, I truly stand on his shoulders.

For anyone who has ever taken a class with Bauer, it is sort of like watching a real-life example of the movie A Beautiful Mind. It is simply astounding how Bauer is able to see the text in the way that he does; it is a spiritual moment to watch his mind in action and at work. I cannot help but be grateful that he has passed his IBS legacy on to me and so many others. Indeed, it may be the case that, for me, IBS has increased my devotion and commitment to the Bible more than anything else. So, I want to say thanks to David for piquing my interest in IBS, for equipping me with the skills to interpret the Bible, and for having an open door for students like myself! All of these things will have bearing on my life as a teacher.

Lawson Stone: Another professor of mine from Asbury is Lawson Stone. I did not get to study with Lawson during my Masters work, but I had the opportunity to take several courses with him during my postgraduate studies. I am so thankful that I was able to do that. Stone is one of the most brilliant thinkers I have ever met (and I do not say that lightly). Stone is another Asbury professor who I've been able to do IBS with, and seeing him use IBS was nothing short of a four course meal for the mind and heart. Stone also has a great sense of humor, and he may well be the funniest professor I've ever studied under! If I can work even 10% of Stone's brilliance and humor into my academic career, I think I'll have some success!

I was privileged to have the chance to spend about seven hours in the car with Stone after the Midwest Regional SBL several months ago. On the car ride back from Illinois to Kentucky we talked about family, history, theology, music, television, life in the academy, and so much more. It is quite rare, I suppose, for students to get so much one-on-one time, especially in an informal setting like that, with seasoned scholars. So, I count my blessings for having had that chance because it was very rich indeed. Though many of us might not like to think so, sometimes those out-of-classroom experiences are more educational and life-giving than the ones inside the classroom! So, I want to thank Dr. Stone for providing me with an example of what a devoted scholar and churchman, one who can find the joy and humor in it all, looks like. Thank you!

Fred Long: Last but certainly not least, I want to mention one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Long. Among thinkers, Long is right up there with Stone; I just marvel at Fred's mind. I also appreciate his dedication to Christ's church, as well as his devotion to producing only the highest quality resources when it comes to biblical studies. While being a mentor and professor of mine, Fred has also become a dear friend. He and I have already worked on one academic project together, and have several other things in the hopper. I am super honored to be working with a guy of his caliber.

There are many things that I admire about Fred: 1) He is incredibly approachable and nearly always available; 2) He is often using cutting-edge technology in the classroom and in his studies; 3) His is super disciplined in his studies; 4) He expects a lot of his students, and pushes them toward excellence; 5) He is highly creative; 6) He is an advocate for students; 7) He is a defender of the truth of the Gospel; 8) His knowledge of (Greek) grammar is simply astounding; 9) He is a devout family man; and 10) He cares deeply for God's church. In all of these ways and more, Fred has been a great influence in my life. I have only known him for a few short years, but it seems like we've known each other such a long time. In my view, those types of relationships are often the best. So, I want to say thank you to Fred for being a servant of Christ, for investing in me, for believing in me, and for showing me what a life immersed in the text of the Bible looks like. Thank you!

To all of those mentioned here, I want to say again: "Thank You!" For some, our paths only crossed for a brief time, but some of our engagements have had ongoing effects (for me at least). In some way, shape or form, you have played a role in who I am today and who I aspire to be in the future. From the middle school classroom to the postgraduate classroom, all of you have encouraged me in one way or another. In all of the ways that you have encouraged me, well, I can never truly express how grateful I am. So, I hope that this "Thank You!" will do for now. I also hope that you are encouraged today by knowing that somewhere along the way of your own journey, you made a positive difference in someone's life, namely, mine.  As Jacques Barzun once said, "In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe even for twenty years." Today, I hope I can help you see some of the fruits of your labors, whether it has been 1 year or twenty! For those fruits, particularly the ones that have affected my life, not only do I thank you, but I also thank God!

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