A Few More Thoughts on Teaching  


#27 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “I will teach transgressors your ways… .“  (Orthodox Study Bible)

Recently, I watched a golf instruction video[i] by the renowned teacher, Bill Harmon, who hails from a strong line of professional golfers and golf instructors.  His father Claude Harmon Sr., was a Masters Champion in the 1950s, and as a the club professional at major venues, developed a strong reputation as a teacher. Bill’s older brother, Claude Jr. – ‘Butch’ Harmon is recognized as one of the finest teachers of the game, having mentored professional greats including champions Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.  Bill and the rest of the brothers followed suit, and Bill is known as a teacher of teachers.  The video I watched today was with Chris Como, himself a young but accomplished instructor now working with  arguably the most dynamic player on the Professional Golf tour today – Brycen DeChambeau. So this is not only golf instruction on display, but also the fundamentals of teaching can be seen.

While there is much to learn for a golfer like me any time a knowledgeable pro offers his insights, Harmon is especially compelling as he explained a little about his own life experience teaching golf.  He mentioned a favorite saying of his father, Claude Sr., on teaching golf. ““A good teacher will change 1 thing that changes 5, not 5 things that change 1.” 


To illustrate this saying, Bill recounted his very first teaching lesson, offered at the tender age of 21 (!) given to a man who happened to be his father’s best friend.  His father was also teaching that day on the same range, and doubtless wondered how his son was holding up!  When the lesson was done, Claude Sr. came over to his son, and asked him how the lesson went and how his friend was doing.  Naturally Bill knew his dad knew all about the mistakes his friend made in his golf swing then Claude offered his observations.  The dialogue went something like this,

Claude, Sr:  “I thought you were his ghost writer.” 
The son wondered out loud, “What do you mean?” 
And the elder told him, “Well you gave him enough information in the first five minutes to write a book.”
He continued, “But that’s not your job as a teacher.  Your job is to help him improve impact (on the golf ball)… Your job isn’t to tell him how much you know.”
Bill got mad and asked his father how he came to know this.
He was told,  “That’s what happened when I started teaching.  I was terrible and had to learn how to teach…”  

If this is true of world class golf instructors, it is far more necessary when teaching in the Church! But the problem is probably more widespread in the Church and it’s not just with the youthful pastors.

I often associated Christ’s warnings about using too many words (Mt. 23:14), as referring only to prayer.  Now I’m thinking it applies to teaching as well. I find that in my own efforts to preach or teach, I pile up mountains of words upon each other (including this Series on Psalm 50!), it strikes me that this knowledge-dissemination drive may well limit the impact of the message. 

Simple but Profound Teaching

Good teachers can be succinct and bring a point home clearly and quickly.  The desert fathers taught with great impact for multiple generations.  Their teaching could be grasped simply, often because it was peppered with life experience. Here’s a simple example:

“Abba Poemen used to say, ‘He who labors and keeps the result of his work for himself has twice the grief.’[ii]

The saying is speaking to the importance of working not to benefit oneself, but others and the dangers of accumulating material wealth. He used fewer words than what it took for me to explain what he said!

The Lord Jesus, of course, was the model for all such teaching, using simple and direct ways that he taught, even while using simple analogies and through the use of parables.  His goal was to get one (main) point across – powerfully, and he does just that. 

What’s ironic though, is that often the process of interpretation of His words leads to many nuances of meaning, and hidden implications.  This serves, for better or for worse, as the fodder for preachers in every age.  So in retelling the simple story of the prodigal son returning to his welcoming Father as an image of God’s love and forgiveness, one can easily launch into an expose’ of the prodigal son’s love money, his foolishness, the dangers of cavorting with women, the Hebrew understanding of the filth of swine, the hunger of the belly that is symbolic of spiritual hunger, the killing of the fatted calf, brotherly love or jealousy, etc… you get the point.

Part of the reason I launch into all this stuff, and sometimes miss the simplicity of a simple story is that that’s how I was trained to learn, at least in much of my academic experience.  In the classes I took in math and science in college there was an enormous amount of knowledge that had to be gathered, comprehended and mastered before advancing, as well as skills applied (such as math) to solve problems using it. You had to be able to demonstrate that you knew it in detail. I can’t imagine what it would be like in medical training today – the Covid clinical studies[iii] are an example – where seemingly a physician is required to have and fully utilize such a breadth of knowledge and call upon it at a moment’s notice to make a decision.  But maybe there’s a better way to learn – especially when there’s just too much information?

Good Instruction is Experiential

One reason why the golf instruction video struck me and stuck with me is that it was grounded in Bill Harmon’s personal experience.  And his father could teach him because he identified his own personal shortcoming in his own teaching experience. His example of his learning from his father showed me how this might  work in other contexts, like the Church. 

I think that Psalm 50 teaches us so profoundly because it’s laced with David’s personal suffering, reflection, aspirations and hope for a new way of life.  Ironically, because it is so much his, it can also be mine.  David’s outcome despite his sin was good – maybe so for me as well. 

Good Instruction is Personal

Bill Harmon emphasizes that everyone’s golf swing is unique.  If that’s true in the realm of something like golf, how much so in the realm of how we respond to the spiritual truths of the Faith? I have several books on golf.  They collect dust on the shelf. Reams of information are probably not very helpful.[iv]  When it comes to being taught (or better – trained) the  Internet in the end is often not helpful either  – despite the vast resources of the Information Age.  What Christianity shows us is what is needed is a good teacher.  In this example, a good teacher is to focus simply on the student and one or two specific areas to address to have a good impact.

David was saved because he had a Teacher – the holy Prophet Nathan.  Nathan didn’t quote the whole Torah at David or fill his mind with lofty thoughts.  He told a parable that had an impact on David because the truth of that parable confronted David’s own behavior. 

The Christian Method of Teaching

In the Church we often quote the words of Christ at the very end of St. Matthew’s gospel, (Mt. 28:)  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son,and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The teaching process is to be done by ones who not only had the knowledge to teach, but had become disciples of the Master and could then enter into a relationship of discipling those who wished to learn the Christian Way.  This is what Jesus did, he first called disciples, then taught them – only gradually but personally helping each one understand and doing so by building slowly.[v]  And of course, we know how slow that learning process went!  By the time of the Crucifixion the disciples seemed to have forgotten everything the had been taught!  

But His Teaching was built on a relationship – the Rabbi and his students, the Master and his disciples.  This is how Christian teaching works best.  How often do our Church efforts to teach and preach, in the end, amount to little more than casting out one idea upon another to a mass of people, like the analogy of throwing paint up against a wall and hoping it sticks?

But the example of Jesus’s teaching effectiveness was clear.  The disciples[vi] learned the most important lesson – that they were still disciples of Jesus after the Resurrection!  It didn’t matter that they had forgotten so much and forsaken everything in their moment of trial.  The Relationship is what really counted – and it lives beyond the grave.[vii]  In that state, the disciples could begin to really learn what the Teacher had been saying all along, by living in light of their discipleship of the Risen One.

David’s discipleship formation by Nathan was a foreshadowing of the apostles’ experience with Christ, in that David’s relationship with God would be sustained through his dark night of sinfulness and the wrenching pain of penance.  It is the relationship with God that is the heart of the Psalm.  In the end Psalm 50 is not so much about David’s sin, or even his repentance, but of God’s personal love for Him through it all.

Getting a Grip

As the golf video unfolded, I was struck by one other insight that Bill Harmon shared after practicing decades of teaching.  In golf before you hit the ball you have to pick up and grip the club. The correct grip is different than how we might naturally try to grasp a baseball bat or a shovel.  Harmon put great emphasis first on getting the grip right.[viii]  The grip is the connection of the golfer to the world he will impact.  Without a firm, but supple grip there is a loss of connection to the motion of the golf swing and its impact. 

One thing Harmon mentions in the video is that he found that, consistently, all golfers (like yours truly) hate to change their grip – even if it would improve their game.  That’s because, as he notes, it’s uncomfortable. He goes on to show how getting started with a bad grip leads to all kinds of other problems in the golf swing, often forced by attempts to compensate due to the original error, often with disastrous results.

I couldn’t help but identify with this – not only regarding golf, but with spiritual matters and life itself.  To correct something in our life often means changing something SO basic and fundamental to the way we ‘always did it.’ But often the way we get a ‘grip’ on life is flawed and the compensations lead to more problems and even disastrous consequences.[ix]  What Christianity gives us, is a whole new grip – or connection to life in this world.  It is a different life vision, a different way of behaving, and most importantly, a different way of thinking.  This is uncomfortable, especially at first.  I’ve found this to be true in my own walk as well as trying to help others.  We resist the uncomfortable and always want to go back to what we did before, with its errors.  To actually change could hold great promise – but the battle is to sustain the change long enough until we get over the ‘hump’ of being uncomfortable and begin to see something happen.   Then we can say, ‘Oh yeah – now I get it.’ 

I’ve seen this happen with people trying to explore Orthodoxy as well.  The initial excitement can start a process of inquiry based on a host of experiences or interests – such as beautiful liturgies, liturgical music, profound theology, stunning art, mystical prayer, rich relationships, etc.  But to enter really into any of that requires fundamental changes – and this is a process of becoming uncomfortable.  A person who likes Orthodox theology may become uncomfortable when the praise band is replaced with foreign-sounding chant.  Or the one who loves the fellowship of others may well find it deeply difficult to believe in, let alone experience, a fellowship with the holy ones of the Church called the saints.

But as Harmon would say about his golf students, persevering with the grip change will lead to a time and place where that is the ‘new normal’ and going back to the old ways is then not only undesirable, but uncomfortable as well. What’s more, the benefit of the new way opens the window to a host of other personal benefits that were impossible doing things the ‘old way’.  One arrives in a New Place.

Teaching in a New Way

I think this is where the Christian teachers really earns their keep. 

The true teacher in the image of Christ walks with the student (disciple) through the uncomfortableness of it all.  They listen to the complaining, bear with the excuses, challenge kindly and perhaps hardest of all, endure the sadness of failures when the one they are walking with fails and all but wants to throw in the towel.  Such teachers persevere because of love, knowing that student they love and serve must learn the  ‘new grip’ that the Church teaches if she is ever to make progress along the spiritual path we call Christianity.  Such teachers – at whatever level be it church school, adult ed, seminary, etc. – in persevering become like the Master Himself – icons of His understanding, perseverance, endurance, forbearance, etc. because they themselves are learning to love as He has loved. The teacher remains a learning disciple.  All such teaching is based in the Truth that the Resurrection awaits, when all – including student and teacher – will come to know the Teacher and see Him face to face. This is very far from merely accumulating data or ‘knowledge.’

Teaching the Unjust?

David asserts he will teach the unjust the ways of the Lord.  We can begin to see what an undertaking this is. Ironically though, perhaps the ‘unjust’ are in a position to be more open to life change. We could simplistically use as an example of the ‘unjust’ person, a woman who is in prison. There may be well established patterns of behavior and thinking that will be uncomfortable to change for her, in becoming a Christian.  However, if she’s in prison, she’s already uncomfortable!  This may well open the door to a total reorientation that can take place very quickly if it’s done personally by some who actually cares for her, and demonstrates it in the ‘dog – eat – dog’ world that she knows.

Leading and Teaching

So much is said today about mentoring and coaching in many walks of life, not only just in sports but in business, education, and the like.  Those who have been coached well – by anyone doing anything – have received, I believe, a great gift. They have learned how to get a grip on one aspect of their life, get over their hump of discomfort, and begin to get better – to mature. They have someone who cared enough about them to give them a sense of value, that their life can be better and is worth changing.

In the Church this has long been the model for our teaching discipline.  Perhaps it’s time to move back to it as our mode of teaching as the Teacher’s disciples. Ω

[i] You may be able to view the video here: https://www.golfpass.com/golfs-top-instructors-bill-harmon/the-importance-of-grip-club-face-ball-flight?utm_source=GOLFPASS&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=gp_non_member_videotips__20211212&utm_content=the-importance-of-grip-club-face-ball-flight     By analogy, many of the things Bill shared in the video can taken from golf to other aspects of learning in life.

[ii] From Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Essential Texts, Bryn Geffert and Theofanis Stavrou, Yale Univ Press, 2016, p.94. Many of the selections they cite  are from Benedicta Ward’s, Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

[iii] As I’ve studied the emergence of the Coronavirus and Covid disease, I’ve probably read or watched videos of hundreds of articles on it and know I haven’t got anything but the thinnest grasp of any of it.  Reading theology is the same – there’s just too much of it.

[iv] Pastors’ libraries are filled with shelves and shelves of books – many/most unread or long forgotten. My grade school principal wisely used to tell us that you can only learn so much, but what you really need to learn is how to find information you need. What he was talking about was a method of learning, and searching, for information.

[v] We see the personal approach when the scriptures identify a disciple specifically, like Philip (Jn. 14:8), who He teaches about seeing the Father through Himself, or his rebuke of Peter about the necessity of the Cross. (Mk.8)

[vi] All but Judas of course.  By his suicide he cut himself off from the Master and himself as well – his own discipleship.

[vii] It’s interesting how in the lives of the saints, one who is mentored is sometimes ‘visited’ by his spiritual father or inspirational guide even after death to correct or encourage the one on the journey to continue in faith.

[viii] Growing up in Southwestern Pa, my golf hero was Arnold Palmer, who was from nearby Latrobe, Pa – hometown of my wife no less!.  In one documentary on his life, I recall it said how he would spend hours, gripping, regripping and adjusting his grip alignment, the pressure in his fingers, etc.  I learned to grip a club in about 1966.  Since then I would be surprised if I spent more than 15 minutes thinking about it since!  And the scorecard proves the point. 

[ix] The downward spiral of addiction is an example – whether it be to alcohol or drugs, food or material things, money or power, etc.  The compensations lead to a breakdown of personal integrity = sin. E.g. Compulsive gambling can lead to lies, theft, fraud, bankruptcy, broken relationships, other addictions, despair, etc.   A new ‘grip’ on life is needed.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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