I was born the day before my father started seminary. My dad loves to quip, “My mentors recommended I not start a family and grad school at the same time, so I started my family on Sunday and seminary on Monday!” It must have been a nightmare at the time, but the fiasco eventually evolved into a well-worn family story.
It took him a while to finish (my fault, I assume), so my earliest memories are of sitting with my dad, “reading” theology over his shoulder.
Once he had the MDiv in hand, he began pastoring churches in the rural Midwest. So my next memories are of sitting with my dad, “reading” theology over his shoulder, then heading outside to dig up potatoes or driving to visit a dairy farmer in his milking parlor (and coming home with a few tubs of raw milk).
At some point, I started actually reading over his shoulder, so there was no season of my early childhood where daily life and theology didn’t mix and mingle. My pastor bounced theology and sermon ideas off our family at dinner, and my childish exploits were used from the pulpit as anecdotes. From the day I was born (or, at least, the day after), the ups and downs of daily life dovetailed with the ins and outs of theology.
It’s been decades since I lived with my parents, longer still since I listened in while my dad read a commentary or wrote a sermon. Now I have my own collection of commentaries, my own favorite theologians. I’ve earned a degree in Bible/theology, and I write Bible studies, spiritual formation, and practical theology for a living. There’s nowhere on earth I feel as comfortably at home as I do at a theology conference—except perhaps walking through the forest or sitting by the lake. I love the ideas, the orthodoxy, the concepts. But I know with my entire being that head knowledge can only bring me halfway to the Truth.
When Jesus—the Word made flesh—came to earth, he didn’t visit the ivory towers. Jesus didn’t rub shoulders with the cultural or religious elite but with the peasants and shepherds. The Son of God didn’t write a book, or even a blog. He hung out with fishing and farming families, and he taught them that the truth of God’s Kingdom was right there. We have no stories of Jesus teaching from the great Greek and Roman amphitheaters, but from a hillside, from a fishing boat. He’s mud-stained, jostled by a hungry crowd, and he’s describing the Kingdom as a seed that will be soon be planted, the yeast a woman massages into dough, the treasure found in a wheat field after harvest. Jesus describes his followers as fishermen, folks planting fields, women sweeping floors, sheep wandering the wilderness. He talks about cooking salt, oil lamps, harvesting tools. He describes himself as a shepherd.
Never, ever does Jesus insinuate that his disciples would be better off leaving this world behind and studying God without both feet firmly planted in their dirt-and-sweat-drenched existence. Far from it! If anything, he hints at the opposite: only those willing to listen with humility, those who have paid attention to God working in the flowers and birds and trees, will understand the truth of what God-made-flesh was doing in the world. Only those who become like little children will find what they seek.
Not long ago I was asked to speak to a Bible study group of new Christians. I was the one with the theology degree, the published books, the deep thoughts—and they came expecting to listen and learn. But I found that this group of mostly uneducated baby Christians knew things about God that I needed. They were finding God’s presence and his truth popping up daily in their families, in the neighbors who needed or offered a hand, in the family member suffering terminal illness, in faithfulness during dead-end jobs and exhausting realities. God—and the Kingdom—was every bit as real and active in their daily lives as in my theological library.
Christian theology has always been solidly embedded in life-on-the-ground reality. It all began with God the Creator, carefully, intentionally planting the garden by hand, breathing life into the figures he formed from the dust. And that was just the beginning! God himself came to earth as a man, born from his mother’s womb, living (and dying!) just as we all do. The ultimate redemption is envisioned as a city coming down to earth, a river, a tree. All the greatest hits of Christian theology—creation, incarnation, redemption, salvation—each and every one is carried out on the earth, embodied.
I’m eternally grateful for the privilege of living my life with the words and ideas of Christian theology. There’s no other way I want to make a living, no other gift I want to offer my community, no other topic that opens my mind and heart. But I’ll always find the Truth coming alive in reality—in my children, in my garden, in my neighbors’ needs and offerings.
Catherine McNiel is a writer and speaker who seeks to open eyes to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day—while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Catherine’s first book, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline, was an ECPA finalist for New Author. Her second book is All Shall be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World. She’s on the lookout for wisdom, beauty, and iced coffee.