Fun Synod School class explores the Bible’s shortest books
by Duane Sweep (and the Rev. Tom Willadsen) | Special to Presbyterian News Service
STORM LAKE, Iowa — The Rev. Tom Willadsen of Oshkosh, Wis., has become a fixture at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School. The Synod School connection, when one thinks about it, is likely caramel rolls. Willadsen, hands tucked snugly into plastic gloves, personally distributes the sweet treats to breakfast diners on those days the caramel rolls are available in the cafeteria. But he’s also known for his classes, and the classes are known for humor.
Willadsen, author of “OMG! LOL! Faith and Laughter,” which can be found here, spent 19 years as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh. While there he organized monthly meetings of faith leaders in the community and served as organizer and master of ceremonies at an annual Interfaith Festival of Gratitude.
Aware of Willadsen’s reputation for faith, laughter and ecumenism, a sometimes reporter discovered that Willadsen planned a class on the Bible for people with short attention spans. The reporter sought out Willadsen’s perspective on Synod School and the class that even included an evening of Bible reading at a downtown Storm Lake, Iowa, location.
The following is an e-mail exchange between the reporter and Willadsen:
Question: How was Synod School this year? Give me the Tom Willadsen impression of the week.
Answer: Synod School is its own culture. I’ve gone six years in a row and I’ve watched the kids grow up. The weather was really good, only rain part of one day, not too humid and you could only smell the feedlots on a couple days.
I liked moving back to the dining arrangement of prior years — last year’s renovation, though, was in evidence. They put me in Pierce Hall which is super close to where the action is. There’s a tunnel that goes directly to the dining hall. I guess they thought that when I turned 55 I got feeble. I’m not complaining.
Q: What possessed you to offer a class on the Bible for people with short attention spans?
A: I proposed two classes for 2018: “Laughter as a Spiritual Discipline” and “Bible Study for People with Short Attention Spans.” I taught the former last year and it attracted people who wanted instruction in spiritual discipline, rather than laughter. People who’ve taken my classes before know that I’m profoundly shallow, so last year’s class was a mismatch.
Seriously, as a preacher I find it very difficult to preach from books like Esther or Ruth or Jonah because as a preacher I have to spend a lot of time putting the texts into context. A few years ago I organized consecutive Sundays during which we read Ruth then Jonah in their entirety. After each chapter I would bring in some comments on the texts. It gave the congregation a more complete telling of the stories.
Having had success with covering complete books in worship, I thought it would be fun to read some of the shortest books in the Bible together. The experience of hearing a complete work is very different from hearing a few verses prior to a sermon or reading the text silently. Just that change helps us experience scripture more completely.
Just hearing that much Scripture is rare today. Getting skilled but not dramatic readers for each part helps worshipers and students recognize when the speakers change. All I did was download the books from the Bible and divide the texts into four or five parts. I always cast a woman to read the part of God. A few years ago, the woman reading the God part added “Oy, Jonah” to Jonah 4:9, before reading, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Suddenly God had the weariness of a Jewish mother and it opened a whole new lens through which to see Jonah for the whole class.
Jonah is really the funniest book in the Bible. It’s the only example of a community repenting successfully enough to avert God’s wrath. It ends in a question (So, what’s wrong with questions?) and “The Sign of Jonah” is the only sign for his resurrection Jesus ever gives when he’s asked for one.
Depending on how you count them there are more than 10 metaphors for death in Jonah 2. The second chapter is the part where Jonah is in the belly of the big fish — it’s the only thing most people know about Jonah. In my class I asked for the class to shout out modern metaphors for death — six feet under, pushing up daisies, bought the farm. When we got to the end of Jonah 2, when the big fish vomits Jonah onto the shore, we came up with modern euphemisms for throwing up. Some favorites were “driving the porcelain bus” and “round-trip meal ticket.”
Q: How many people did you have in your class?
A: About 30. I picked up a couple midweek. One lady said she had heard the laughter from the class the day before and decided to check it out.
Q: What parts of the Bible did you read?
A: I began the first class by telling students, when they were asked what they did at Synod School, to say, “I read six books, start to finish.” For the record we read James, Philemon and Jude from the New Testament, and Ruth, Jonah and Obadiah from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Q: Why did you pick those books?
A: They’re short. I’ve been preaching more than 30 years and I’ve never cited Obadiah or Jude, so I decided it was time to look at them.
Q: Was there anything in particular that stood out in your class? Did you do a Jonah impersonation? (OK, that was just for fun.)
A: For me, the best personal moment was when I was telling the class about how significant it can be to take another character’s point of view when reading a parable. I suggested they think about the mother of the Prodigal Son and his brother. She’s not mentioned in the parable, but she loved all three men in her life — what would that be like? Then I said, “If you want a short sermon, take the fatted calf’s perspective: ‘The screw up’s home; I’m pot roast.’” I totally dare someone to preach that sermon.
Q: I understand you went to a bar downtown to read the Bible. Can you describe that event? (Do you want to?)
A: I’ve done this on a couple occasions. At my church I started Brown Bag Bible Exploration, which was an unstructured conversation about lessons for upcoming sermons. I benefited immensely from eavesdropping on the conversations of thoughtful people. They benefited from thinking about them for a week and a half instead of just hearing them on Sunday morning. It is a different experience reading Scripture in different places.
Since Jonah is really intended as a humorous commentary on hubris and human pettiness — in my opinion — it lends itself to be read publicly and playfully. About 25 people went on the field trip. I arranged an upper room for us at the Lake Avenue Lounge in downtown Storm Lake. It took us a while to get our drinks, but someone figured out how to play the jukebox, so we did “YMCA.” I asked the bartender for help after we couldn’t get the darn thing to stop.
We did a think-fast or two; I like to ask people to name a dessert they never want to eat again or an interesting thing they’ve broken. Then we read the text one chapter at a time.
“Shouldn’t I be concerned about a city of 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left hand, and also many cattle?”
OK, maybe reading that sentence alone, without the context of the more than 10 euphemisms for death, and stone cold sober, isn’t all that funny. But after dancing “YMCA” with a roomful of Presbyterians on a field trip from Synod School, that punchline had people laughing ’til beer came out their noses. Which is always a good sign, even though it hurts.
Q: When I think of you and Synod School, I think of caramel rolls. Why is that so?
A: By caramel rolls you mean “manna from heaven,” I presume. I guess I’ll tell you the whole story.
I spoke at a Synod Presbyterian Women gathering at Buena Vista University [the site, too, of Synod School] in 2013. My program was called “Laughter’s Healing Art.” My book had come out the fall before, so this was a promotional stop on an extremely short book tour. There were about 200 women and five men on campus. They served caramel rolls at breakfast one morning. I had one. I went to get another and offered to bring some back for the ladies at my table. The accolades, love and affection I received from my table made me decide to deliver caramel rolls to every table. They were that good, and if I passed them around I wouldn’t gain a couple hundred pounds by eating all of them. Caramel rolls made everyone happy. There’s probably a German word for “feeling of delight in sharing tasty food that you neither paid for nor lifted a finger to make.” That’s how I felt. This year, when I spotted Ken, who’s in charge of the kitchen, he looked at me and said, “Thursday.” I didn’t have to say a word.
Two years ago, I offered one to a man who said, “My cardiologist would think this is a bad idea.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“I don’t see a problem.”
I also love to give them to toddlers — other people’s toddlers.
Q: And finally, anything else you want to throw in?
A: Just that the elephant is the only mammal with four forward-facing knees. (You said “anything.”)
Duane Sweep is director of communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. He is an irregular contributor to Presbyterian News Service. The Rev. Tom Willadsen is a minister, humorist and author of “OMG! LOL! Faith and Laughter.”
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