When I was in high school, I didn’t study much. I did my homework assignments and studied for the more difficult exams such as chemistry and physics. In my humanity courses, I relied upon memory and generally winged it. My goal was simply to get into college and enjoy life. Embarrassment drove me towards achieving decent grades, in addition to not having to face my parents who knew I could do better. The joy of learning and becoming competent was not part of my high school DNA.
I continued to wing it during my freshman year of college when I took basic engineering courses. My grades were average, and I had to work harder than high school. There were few social activities, and the daily homework grind was unrelenting. I survived my first year and somehow landed a summer engineering job with an energy company where I worked hard in the hot San Joaquin Valley doing manual oil field labor. That summer taught me two things. First, I did not want to spend my life doing manual labor in the desert. And second, I wanted to be an engineer.
When I returned for my sophomore year, I took the third semester of Physical Chemistry and failed the first exam. I winged it. I knew in my heart that I needed to make a drastic change in my approach to becoming competent. I headed to the library each night and I learned how to fully understand technical subjects. My grades soared, to primarily A’s with a few B’s. When the professors posted exam scores, my grades were regularly in the top 10%. My confidence grew and so did my understanding of how to prepare for exams. I needed to be thoroughly organized and know the material without hesitation. This preparation took much more time, but I enjoyed the process towards excellence.
I read a recent story about an Australian journalist who arranged a trip to the UK to interview Adele about her new album, 30. When they met, she asked the reporter a question about her album, and he told her that he had never listened to it. The reporter was promptly sent home without an interview. He winged it and blew this key opportunity.
I once scheduled a job interview during my college senior year and was asked why I wanted to do research. I replied that I had no passion for research only to learn that the position was in research. The interview didn’t last long, and I was embarrassed for not doing my homework and wasting the interviewer’s time.
I once took a company course in media relations led by experienced journalists. They taught me to always be honest (no problems there). However, their training was geared to only disclose facts and to divert answers towards my story rather than directly answer difficult questions. Public relations made me uncomfortable, although winging it is not advised. There are very few individuals that can succeed unprepared. What may seem to be spontaneous responses are most often achieved through painstaking research and rehearsals. Meticulous preparation and diligent practice produce effortless spontaneity.
I was asked to preach a sermon on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses on the Wittenberg University door. My sermon was a mere four double-spaced typed pages and lasted only 15 minutes. After the service, close friends asked me how I was able to speak without notes. My sermon text was on the podium but after so many rehearsals, the words just flowed naturally. Had I winged it, I would have read the words without passion and bored the worshippers. Audiences know when speakers are winging it.
When I was in seminary, my theology professor was lecturing on suffering. She told the story of a close friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My professor visited her in the hospital and her friend asked why she had to suffer and die young. My professor momentary stopped speaking and looked hard at the class. She then said that it is in moments like this that ministers cannot wing it. Seminary is the time for pastors to prepare for life and death theological questions. Once a pastor is leading the flock, he or she must competently love. The flock will know when a minister is winging it.
Christianity is a religion of both heart and mind. The heartfelt love of Christ needs to be stoked through study of Scripture, community discipleship, prayer, and hearing the Word. Our faith is not to be punted. We are called “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23) and part of that process is understanding our faith, which is both simple and complex. It is simple because the Spirit calls individuals with little religious knowledge. It is complex because of thousands of years of faithful witness to God’s revelation. It is this journey that brings both emotional and intellectual joy to faithful participants.