As if somehow predestined, the required teacher shows up. That’s the message from this ancient Chinese proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” While working in a public high school for a few years, I often noticed (and related to) students sitting with their hands pressed against their cheeks and jaw, elbows on the desk, with eyelids half closed, staring at the teacher, checking the clock frequently, with body language that clearly said “When will this misery end ? If the Chinese proverb put forth all these years is to be trusted, I think it would be safe to say that students in that painful position were simply not ready for those particular subjects at that particular time.
My own high school history class experiences were equally boring. I remember trying to memorize unfamiliar dates and names for no apparent reason other than to attain acceptable test scores. Yet years later my appetite for historical facts soared, taking me to distant cities on long excursions to hear a gifted speaker, see a unique monument, or get the feel of a significant battlefield graveyard.
The renowned Jewish author, Saul of Tarsus, was a well-educated Roman citizen raised during Biblical times in an Asia Minor city on today’s Turkish Mediterranean coast. He had a reputation for brashness. His style was to go into a city, request an audience and deliver interactive speeches. Those events challenged the status quo and the theology of the area’s conventional leaders. His gatherings would often incite crowds into anger as they became polarized on issues. From town to town news about his message and its effect spread, yet folks continued to congregate to listen to him. One could rightly question what it was about Saul ( who by that time had become known as Paul ) that appealed to people. Why did they gather to hear his message?
An Anglican teacher named Everett “Terry” Fullam, who grew up in pre-WWII Montpelier, Vermont, taught music at Barrington College in Rhode Island, appeared on the scene as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal church, Darien, Connecticut in the early 1970’s. Terry found students ready to listen, and stayed on through the ’80’s. He was not brash or at all obnoxious but like Paul his teachings attracted large crowds. However, also like Paul, his message did not always resonate positively with those who heard him. Perhaps more accurately he was sometimes unpopular with people who had heard of him. but not heard him first hand. His theology took the Bible seriously, but differed from the typical sermon style that had become traditional across the decades preceding his time, yet his theology was rarely if ever shown to be in error. Despite resistance from many distractors, his audiences grew to enormous sizes; it was not unusual for the venues where he appeared had to set up ‘overflow rooms’ so people could watch his lectures on a television when the main auditorium filled up.
Just as I related to the bored students who sat in a stuffy classroom waiting for the school day to end, I can also relate to the energizing experiencing of listening to Terry Fullam’s teachings. I understand how he became so popular in the face of sometimes intense opposition. His message was good, but equally significant was the fact that his audiences were hungry – starved in some cases – for the quality of message that led them beyond the mundane, predictable and often ineffective traditional religious sermons.
While his opponents labored to protect the status quo, his audiences grew with people who sought mature connection with the Creator and intuitively knew there was more to the spiritual side of life than just attending church once a week to read a few prayers, sing a few songs, hear a mild sermon and shake a few hands at the coffee hour. These features of traditional church services are not unpleasant. They can be rather comforting from their predictability, but growing people need to stretch, to shift gears to the next level occasionally, and continue to mature.
Apparently, by the time they had heard of Terry Fullam, his audiences had also learned to expect that his teachings would lift their spirit, clarify historical facts, expose hypocrisy and make complex philosophy easy to understand.
For people who were long overdue for a better understanding of genuine spiritual health, benefits like those were attractive and well worth any sacrifice that distractors might imply. For them, like ready students when the teacher appeared, no coercing was required. When a true teacher senses in folks an internally motivated desire to learn, the matchup occurs, the mentor’s message is heard, and unstoppable growth results.