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A Long Road to Hong Kong

Your simple act or choice…made you God’s agent for people growing in life and faith. I salute you.I became a Lutheran school teacher in the fifth grade. Well, okay, I didn’t have the degree or the license yet, but I became a Lutheran school teacher in the fifth grade. I don’t think I recognized it then, but I came to recognize it later. That was the turning point. One room Bethany Lutheran School in Menlo Park, California had just opened.. Miss Herpolsheimer asked me, a fifth grader, to go with this third grader into the kitchen to help her with her math. I don’t know what I did, but when I came out she knew more than when we went in. I became a Lutheran school teacher in the fifth grade.

hong kong skylineThis year, my fifth in Hong Kong, I am a Lutheran educator in Concordia Theological Seminary of the Lutheran Church Hong Kong Synod. The journey has been a long one, but I tell some parts of the story to honor you, wherever you sit/walk/stand on the Christian education trail. Your simple act or choice, on a Sunday morning or a Tuesday afternoon, with eight grades in one room or a thousand students and all the technology you want, made you God’s agent for people growing in life and faith. I salute you.

My wife has shared much of this journey as a supportive spouse and mother, and now especially in Hong Kong, serving full-time in her own right. Her first teaching assignment was kindergarten in the morning and fourth grade in the afternoon. This was a mid-year gift of God (we got married on the fifth day of Christmas and she started teaching about ten days later) because I had just become a full-time student and someone needed to earn money to pay the bills. Either I or the classroom would have been enough, but God got her through all of it.

Concordia gradsFifteen years later in our local Lutheran school, she was the Title One teacher. This is an odd way to separate church and state, that the government pays for her work. Thirty years later in our local Lutheran secondary school in Hong Kong, the government pays for all the work, the whole school, as long as the school plans to meet government requirements. A different kind of Lutheran schooling? You can use a major government grant to publish a curriculum for the six LCHKLS secondary schools. The texts must address moral and civic responsibility. If you add a religious element, that’s okay. This particular school in which she serves has about 800 students. Not your usual Lutheran school: Of the 800, about 50 are believers. (Believers is a preferred word in Hong Kong, because Christian has come to mean Protestant.)

lutheran kindergartenIt is hard work, getting along with each other and conversing cross country in different contexts, but this is the Body of Christ.Lutheran school teacher? My year of internship at St. Matthew in New York City, while serving also in youth and music, convinced me that I could not do all of that for the rest of my life. Returning for my last year at Concordia University, River Forest, I explored this new thing called DCE, a different kind of Lutheran educator. I recognize that I “became” a DCE at a continuing educator conference about six months into my first call. My pastor and I flew into Ann Arbor for a workshop on team ministry. I quickly sensed that some surrounded me and supported me in those days, and some also tended to my pastor. Ah, team ministry. Lots of us working together. It is hard work, getting along with each other and conversing cross country in different contexts, but this is the Body of Christ.

english and cantoneseAnd this I learned in that last year at Concordia, River Forest. The course was Ethics of the Teacher. For whatever reason, this caught my attention: Ephesians 4:12. Good point! It is the business of (educational) ministry to equip the saints. Teaching is so much more than telling, though sometimes telling is just the right thing. Teaching means seeking to engage people with this material. Christian education, in particular, means seeking to engage people with God’s love in Christ.

Your journey as a teacher in Christian education may have taken you to the pulpit, the gymnasium, or the same school for 40 years of faithful service. One surprise in my journey was 20-plus years of teaching at Concordia University, Saint Paul. Appropriate counsel from LCMS leaders said, “It is probably not worth earning a doctorate to teach theology in one of our Concordias because there likely won’t be a position to fill.” My wife and I discussed the options and decided I would study for the doctorate because sometime, somewhere, it might be the credential I needed to serve in a college. As it happened, I graduated on Sunday with a Th.D. and went to work on Monday, all in the same city. I pray for you the same gifts I had in those years—attentive students (many, not all!) and institutional leaders concerned for Christian witness and service in conjunction with my educational tasks. I remain grateful for the teachers/professors who affirmed my good work and who offered polite correction for the work that wasn’t so good.

concordia HKNow, retired after 20-some years teaching at Concordia St. Paul, I teach in the seminary of the LCHKS. The seminary is bilingual so that the church leaders it trains can participate in the global theological conversation as well as the local Cantonese-speaking one. I may be a Lutheran educator but I am also a Lutheran learner. I learned, for example, that in Hong Kong there are about 7.5 million people, but very few sinners. The word sin has been translated by the equivalent of crime, sinner by the word criminal. So, yes, I am called to teach the Good News of Jesus, but there are not many sinners to hear. But if I teach Jesus as honor in place of shame, there are about 7.5 million people who might be interested. Hope in One God replaces fear of 100 different local gods, or the spirits of ancestors. Yes, I keep learning different ways that our one Good News of God’s work in Christ can be spoken.

How do you speak not “our” language of the church but the language that can be heard there, by them, to tell of Jesus?So I wonder about your classroom, your school, and perhaps how you serve in your neighborhood. What variety is there? How do you speak not “our” language of the church but the language that can be heard there, by them, to tell of Jesus?

opening service at HKIf this journey sounds grand and glorious and your three-grades-in-one-room experience seems small, if you might count yourself as a believer but are none-to-sure about this Lutheran thing, if there are days or nights when you are about done with it all, then please note also that there are some of those stories in this journey as well. I heard former LCMS President Kieschnick preach on the Isaiah text, “Here am I, send me.” I was so grateful for the newly-met pastor friend who listened as I talked with him, “I don’t want to go.” I was grateful for my personal devotional time the night I found this clarity. My experience was something like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Seeing that image helped: I will do—not as well, but I can work at it—I will do what Jesus did. Pray and then take the next steps.

Increasingly this verse has become important: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yes, this is Jesus in the garden, and however it is that we feel, we are not that much abandoned. But this is Psalm 22:1: for a thousand years before Jesus God’s people had permission to say this. Part of my continued growth as a Christian educator has been hearing the Psalms more and more, with their wide range of emotional options all fitting into the relationship, the conversation, with God in Christ.

Rev. Dr. Richard E. Carter, DCE, is Professor, Concordia Theological Seminary, Hong Kong and Religious Counselor, Concordia International School, Hong Kong. He is also Professor Emeritus, Concordia University, St. Paul.

Photos courtesy the author.