When you are a “substitute” you have a temporary job filling in for someone who has a regular or permanent one. For some reason the regular person can’t do the work, so the call goes out for a substitute.

We have probably all experienced substitute teachers at school. They are generally unprepared and nervous and the students take advantage of them.

During 1969 and 1970 I substitute-taught at a high school in Pennsylvania. We were on furlough and I wanted to supplement our income before we returned to Papua New Guinea. I had no teaching experience at the junior high or high school level, but I decided to apply for the job anyway. Substitute teachers are often hard to find, so they hired me.

They not only hired me, they called me often: for English, remedial reading, physical education, math, even French, which I knew nothing of. “Don’t worry,” someone told me, “just spell the words if you need to.” I declined spelling French, but took anything else that the school offered. One of my classes was a gang of about six seniors who had trouble reading, even at a rudimentary level. I finally hit upon the idea of using comic books instead of the state-supplied textbooks, and it worked. Superman was easy to read, the schoolbooks were not.

I got to know the Principal reasonably well and one day he asked me how things were going. “I’m having a bit of trouble with Joe” (not his real name), I replied. “Oh Joe,” he said, “well, if he starts anything, hit him first and hit him hard.” Those were the old days when you could hit an insolent and obnoxious student. These days you can be sued for mispronouncing their name or mistaking their gender.

I knew I was a good substitute when the students started to boo me when they found out I was their teacher for the day. I would walk into the classroom, look around in a menacing manner, and dare anyone to defy me. It worked—they would remain respectful, at least in the room, and I would feel like a monarch.

Although that was the end of my teaching career, it was not the end of my history as a substitute. In college I was called upon to substitute for the student council president when he got caught in some act of failure (smoking, I believe). I became the president by replacement. I don’t think the regular president cared—in fact, we became good friends through the exchange.

More recently, in my old age, I have been called upon to substitute-teach our Bible study when our pastor is absent. We are a group of about 14 retired men, all of them Texans except me, so it is natural that I should be summoned. One Texan does not like to be taught by another Texan, so they chose me, an alien. (That is not totally true—our pastor is a Texan as well.) I wasn’t sure if they would understand my dialect, although I have lost most of my Pennsylvania hill-billy accent. I can “turn it on” if I want to, but I don’t do it around Texans. Some of them carry guns and know how to use them.

Our leader and organizer, Don, is an ex-provost from Baylor University. He gets us started, decides who should read at the onset and who should give a blessing at the close. I think that is the kind of thing provosts normally get paid to do.

If the pastor is leading the group, he will give summaries, present various interpretations, mention a Greek word here or there, and encourage discussion. We have a variety of backgrounds in our retired group: Navy chaplain, hospital chaplain, a couple of engineers, business CEO, musician, pastor, hotel manager, pediatrician, professor emeritus, school principal, lawyer, judge, and so on. I’m not sure of all their backgrounds, but they are all distinguished and capable of dialogue.

I am the retired missionary, the one who can summon snake stories or recount dangerous missions at a moment’s notice. And most of the stories I tell are true, although they may be embellished for the occasion. But in our Bible studies we often see how Jesus used hyperbole and exaggeration with great results.

The problem with being a missionary—even a retired one—is that people expect you to know more than you actually do and you end up acting like you know more than you do. There are other problems with being a retired missionary, but I won’t enlarge on them, except to say that I tend to feel guilty when I wear new shoes or expensive shirts. Real missionaries dress in black shabby clothes, say “amen” a lot, and carry a really big (new) King James Bible.

The version of the Bible I use is the Good News Bible or the Contemporary English Version, both commonly used in Papua New Guinea where we lived and worked. But when I read from my version and the study members are trying to follow in the King James or even NIV, it can create confusion—like a Texan talking to an Australian. It is like my version is a substitute for the real thing—the version that St. Paul used, which would have been the King James if he had known about it. Or perhaps he might have even used the RSV or NIV, but certainly not anything approaching the status of a paraphrase.

This is because a paraphrase may be something like a substitute teacher: tolerated but not especially desired. I don’t want to say our Bible study members are like that. However, I’ll just wait and see how many are absent next time Don announces that I am to substitute. And, mark my words, there will be no excused absences.

April, 2018
Waco, Texas