This week’s Sabbath School lesson is on sacrifice, which is also about gifts—that which we offer to others. In this commentary, adapted from Spectrum 30-2 (Spring 2002), A. Greg Schneider relates the sacrifices that teachers and others have made—how they have shaped his life, and those of many others.
I was a gifted child, and I am now a gifted adult. What do I mean? Let me start with Mom, Roberta Klooster Schneider, an English major who was herself gifted by a dedicated Washington Missionary College faculty and the opportunities given her to grow her gifts as editor of the school paper and yearbook. She gave me the gift of language skills and the love of words. It was characteristic of Mom that at the time when Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was selling over a million copies, she rather impishly evangelized for an obscure book she thought was much more interesting—The Joy of Lex. The foundations of my calling are built out of passions and skills I learned from her. Others built on those foundations—English teachers like Gay Mack at Takoma Academy and Judith Nembhard at Columbia Union College, my mother’s (and my father’s) renamed alma mater. These two English teachers did as much as any ordained preacher to evoke in me a sense that I might become a minister of the Word.
My love of the Bible was nurtured at home and school and church—all three—but I remember best the big Junior Sabbath School room in the basement of the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist church. There on the bare asphalt-tiled floors we grade schoolers would scoot our metal folding chairs into small circles around our Sabbath School lesson teachers to recite memory verses and compete in Bible quizzes. Among the many faithful laypeople who led those circles, I recall especially Roy Rubottom, whose florist shop was just across the street from the church and who in later years would supply the orchid corsages I would pin with sweaty fumbling fingers to my dates’ dresses.
At age 10, however, these were matters unimaginable. Mr. Rubottom mainly just wanted me to remember to bring my Bible to Sabbath School. He bought me one himself, so that whenever he directed us to look up texts, I had his gift at hand. I still have that Bible, and I have opened it now and then to glance at Mr. Rubottom’s signature on its front page, a tangible reminder of the spiritual gifts I have been given.
Thanks to Elna Quade, I learned to carry a tune. Mrs. Quade, music teacher at John Nevins Andrews school, also in Takoma Park, had a proven method for taming those comically wandering voices we sometimes hear in less well-taught children’s choirs. I was one of the tuneless wanderers for whom she made a special place at the front of the music class. We were to be “whisperers,” she said, a position she described in terms of such hope and promise that I thought it a place of honor. Fortunately for my six-year-old self-esteem, it took me only a few weeks to find the melody and a breathy boy soprano voice to follow it with. Only years later did I tumble to the fact that I started out as a musical dunce.
Neither Leland Tetz at Takoma Academy nor Paul Hill at Columbia Union College had much to work with when I joined their choirs, but they labored faithfully and gently with my mediocrity. These three musicians’ gifts to me were the great traditions of Christian hymnody and choral singing, and by that music I have been led into communion with God and all his creatures more surely and deeply than by any of the sermons I have either heard or preached.
Lynne Schwindt taught both French and religion at Takoma Academy. Prior to her senior year “Youth Problems” class, much of my religious instruction had seemed to set me, with desperate energy, against the sinful world and against my own sinful propensities. So on guard was I against the evil without and within that I was ignorant and fearful of the world around me, unaware of and at odds with myself. Mrs. Schwindt used her knowledge of psychology, especially personality theory, to challenge me to know who I was, and who I might become. I found that I was not only fallen, but good, my sinful propensities only the misguided, misused gifts of God’s good creation. Lynne’s husband, Bob, taught psychology at CUC. His rambling reflections in class led me further along the path his wife had opened up, nurturing my spirit better than any pulpit ministry I had known.
To be fair, there were gifts from preachers that mattered deeply. Elder William Keith taught my baptismal class and conveyed to me the symbolism of death, burial, and resurrection in our Seventh-day Adventist ritual of immersion. I can still hear Elder Keith’s soft southern drawl in the stairwell of Takoma Park Church when, in a tiny moment of special attention to a preadolescent’s budding but insecure manliness, he remarked to me and my parents how much he admired my firm handshake.
Later on, Bill Loveless became one of the few preachers in my young experience who met the demands of an adolescent and young adult intellect for ideas that made sense of my life and times. I especially loved the sermons where he would team up with Winton Beaven, Columbia Union College president, and they would, with disarmingly light banter, drive home profound points of faith and ethics. I also treasure the image I have of Elder Loveless on Sabbath mornings in Sligo church turning around, back to the congregation and face-to-face with the college choir as we led the congregation in the opening hymn. With the lower three voices in unison and the sopranos descanting on the alto part an octave high, we would see in his eyes a smile of affirmation and delight, and we would reach to the bottom of our being to produce sounds to make the spirits of all worshipers soar.
Elder Bob Zamora was both teacher and preacher for me. As my undergraduate New Testament teacher, he built on Mr. Rubottom’s foundation to endow me with a passion to know the historical and linguistic depths of the biblical text. More pivotal still was his invitation for me to assist him at a week of prayer he gave to the students of Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio. There, as impromptu spiritual counselor, I learned the joy of service in the nurture and formation of young people. It changed my life. Prior to this experience, my double theology and history major had reflected my design to become a minister and a lawyer—to specialize in religious liberty work—and thus defend the Adventist Remnant from encircling dark forces of the last days. During the week with Zamora, teaching and nurture of my younger fellow disciples began to emerge as my calling.
Then I received the gift of a group of young ministers scattered through the Columbia Union who departed from their normal rounds of pastoral duties to plan and execute a series of weekend retreats they called “Quest.” The leaders, Ray Greenley and Clarence Schilt, had been schoolmates of my older brother and sister, and they were happy to recruit their friends’ kid brother. I was pleased and surprised that two conference presidents, elders Bob Follett and Don Reynolds, also accepted invitations to these meetings.
The Quest retreats were near ecstasies of spiritual communion. The legacy I received were the mysterious and inexhaustible scriptural images of the Church as the Body of Christ through which came the gifts of the Spirit. I found the biblical language with which to speak of what I felt called to be. I was to be one of the teachers whom the Spirit gave for the building up of the Body of Christ. Of course, these metaphors had been lying there in the letters of Paul for nearly two millennia, but it took the profound spiritual intimacies I enjoyed with friends to bring them to life. Once, the Church had seemed to me mostly a club where belonging depended on assent to a list of required beliefs and conformity to a set of demanded behaviors. This “dry bones” idea was now wrapped around with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and the Church became a means of grace to me.
I have named only a few people to represent a wide, dense network of family, friends, teachers and, yes, preachers who formed me spiritually. They created a lattice of very personal ties among concrete human beings, and they taught me how true spiritual formation is done in its very human actuality and mortal fragility. I thrived amid bonds of trust that these people and many others before and around them labored faithfully to build.