Last night Debbie (my wife) and I were having dinner with some long-time friends and the issue of church discipline came up in our conversation. We had a lively and spirited discussion. As we talked my mind was drawn to times in the past when friends, teachers, and mentors loved me enough to risk speaking to me about attitudes or behaviors of mine that were hurting me — and often harming others.

Wise, kind, difficult, direct words are hard to hear and accept when they are directed at you. Yet if they are spoken with sensitivity and discernment — a combination often hard to achieve — words can change a life. I remember, for instance, a word of kindness and warning spoken to me shortly after my twenty-first birthday. I had enjoyed a night out on the town in LA and, to speak frankly, had had too much to drink. In my inebriated state, I somehow thought it a good idea to climb into a shopping cart at two in the morning, and launched myself down a local hill into downtown Westwood, all the while shouting at the top of my voice, Whoo Pah, Whoo Pah.” This was not a good idea. My moral perceptions and behaviors required drastic reformation; I needed help. 

Word of my late-night antics quickly rippled through the Bible school I was attending in West LA, close to the UCLA campus. During a morning class break a teacher and mentor I deeply admired called me aside over a cup of coffee. Chris,” he asked. Can I ask you a question?” Sure,” I replied. Did you get drunk last night?” Yep,” I immediately replied. I thought to myself, People get drunk all the time. No big deal.” Did you climb into a shopping cart and launch yourself down-hill into the center of Westwood at two in the morning, shouting Whoo Pah’?” Yep,” I again readily answered. That was fun,” I thought to myself. What a rush!” 

My mentor paused before he replied. He never raised his voice. He never spoke in anger. His face was calm and gentle. But he said very directly, Chris, if you ever do that again, you’ll be out of this school before you can blink.” Really?”, I asked. Really,” he responded. 

I’m happy to say he didn’t end our conversation with the warning. My kind teacher proceeded to explain to me in some detail why my behavior was really a bad idea. Indeed, it was not only a bad idea; it was sinful. Yet he spoke in a paced, kind, loving, very direct way. And I’m glad he did. He knew I was in the very beginning stages of learning to think and live like a Christian. He knew I trusted him. He understood that my spiritual and moral transformation in Christ had just begun. I was a very young Christian who needed help growing up. So, with love and courage, he talked to me gently and gracefully with words I could understand and receive. He didn’t overlook my behavior. He loved me enough to help me change it. Over forty years later I still remember that conversation. 

Tom experienced a similar conversation, but for him it wasn’t about drinking; it was about thinking. Tom had recently arrived at Drew University, shortly after his appointment as a tenured professor at age thirty-nine. His conversation partner was Will Herberg, a well-known professor of Judaica and philosophy, whose earlier life had followed a surprisingly similar trajectory to that of Tom. In his younger days Herberg had been devoted to left-wing utopian ideas, movements such as Marxist ideology and the communist party. Will saw similar patterns in Tom’s thinking and life, ones that markedly influenced his writing about God. 

Herberg was thirty years Tom’s senior by the time Tom arrived at Drew. After becoming Tom’s friend, Herberg spoke to him very directly about Tom’s path as a theologian and a Christian. Tom writes that over lunch, Will was trying to show me the errors I was making were much deeper than I had realized. I tried to defend myself. Suddenly my irascible, endearing Jewish friend leaned into my face and told me that I was densely ignorant of Christianity, and he simply couldn’t permit me to throw my life away.” 

Next week we’ll explore in some detail the conversation Herberg had with Tom. It was, indeed, a lively, tough one, an exchange that changed Tom’s thinking for the rest of his life.