Homework for the teachers

Pastor and educator Rodger Nishioka offers up an APCE talk centered on a single verse from Isaiah

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — During his engaging mini-plenary Friday, the Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka gave educators attending the annual event of the Association of Partners in Christian Education in Chicago a homework assignment: memorize Isaiah 50:4 and recite it to the folks back home if they ask what you learned at the “Circle of Faith” event of the organization formerly known as the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators.

In case you too want to set the verse to memory, the New Revised Standard Version renders Isaiah 50:4 this way: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”

Just what defines the tongue of a teacher? Nishioka, the senior associate pastor and director of adult faith formation at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, recalls the wisdom of his seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Williams. When students complained about too much homework or how they considered certain topics irrelevant, Mrs. Williams would have none of it. “You don’t know what you need,” she would tell the students. “Do not complain about what you’ve got.”

“That’s the tongue of a teacher,” Nishioka said. “Brilliant and spot on.”

Weary people deserve a word from their teachers, he said, adding, “If we don’t have a word to share, what are we doing here?”

The word translated “sustain” is the Hebrew verb “ezer,” which can also mean “help” or “uplift.” In Hebrew it’s an imperfect verb, Nishioka explained, which means the action is ongoing and incomplete. As such, “sustain” is a good translation, according to Nishioka: “that I may know how to sustain continually.”

“Morning by morning — what does that make us think of,” and some in the crowd started singing the appropriate lyrics from the refrain of “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

Every day, God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught, the verse says. Nishioka asked attendees for their interpretation, then offered one himself.

The Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka preached in 2020 during closing worship at the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Center’s Gathering as One online conference. (Screenshot)

“We are called to be lifelong learners. We have the word to share and the tongues of teachers. Every day God wakes us up to listen as those who are taught, to be lifelong learners,” Nishioka said. “We need to grow so we can provide a word” to students, whether they’re children or young adults, “and we can’t do that if we don’t have the substance of lifelong learning.”

Then he asked, what is the word given to us?

One answer may be found in the hymn “Listen to the Word That God Has Spoken”: “Listen to the word that God has spoken; listen to the One who is close at hand; listen to the voice that began Creation; listen even if you don’t understand.”

“That last line — it is totally messing with you and me as educators,” Nishioka said with a smile. “We have prefaced our lives on helping people understand. Here we are hearing we may be called upon to share a word we don’t understand.”

“It is less about you, Nishioka,” he reminds himself. “This really is about the nature of God. To be faithful, you share that word and trust that it will sustain the weary.”

Again he asked, what is the word we are being asked to share?

“You have got to have that,” Nishioka said. “Our people are weary, and we are being less than faithful to our call if we don’t have that word to share.”

Nishioka brought three words forward as examples. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “All of the Hebrew scriptures can be summarized in one word: Remember!”

A poignant Toyota commercial brought viewers the remarkable story of paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, whose adoptive mother tells a woman over the phone, “It might not be easy, but it’ll be amazing. I can’t wait to meet her.”

Then there’s the current Procter & Gamble commercial featuring Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim growing up as the very active daughter of her father, Jong Jin. The tagline is “Because you are always there. I am here.”

Those three words, then, are “remember,” “amazing” and “always.” Share your word, Nishioka urged conference goers, and they did not hesitate, calling out “faithful,” “enough,” “kindness,” “trust,” “connection,” “generous,” “Christ,” “promise,” and other words.

“God has given us the word. The sustaining is ongoing,” Nishioka said. “It has gone before us, it’s happening now and it will continue. Thanks be to God.”

“Circle of faith: 50 years + one and beyond” concluded Saturday with a panel discussion among APCE partners and closing worship. Presbyterian News Service will present further reporting on the event next week.


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