Essay

Ordinary Dust

By October 9, 2015 5 Comments
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Tuesday morning I entered the classroom with a strange, nagging, feeling.  I couldn’t shake it… the feeling that things weren’t going to go well. I asked the students to read the first chapter of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great so we could talk about Descartes, modernity, secularity, and atheism—particularly focusing on the conditions that make belief possible. My point, of course, wasn’t to convince them to be atheists, my point was merely to explore the social and cultural conditions that make atheism a viable option. But question after question evaporated into a deafening silence. Sure, a few students made the usual comment about atheists not having morals, along with the obligatory reference to Hitler, but that was about it. For 75 minutes I struggled to find the right question that would unlock insight and meaning. When the clock hit 10:40…it was over—mercifully put out of my misery.

In her blog post, Barefoot Teaching, Jennifer Holberg compares the teaching profession to Moses’ experience of the burning bush. She writes,

We do not meet to do ordinary work when we come to the classroom. Instead, like every other square inch, it is holy, heaven-crammed ground. As professors, we get the amazing opportunity of helping students “see” and by our own posture, modeling humble attentiveness. In so doing, we bear witness to God in his creation and in our students, “every common” one, “afire” with God’s image. Our hope as educators to send forth a shoeless generation, full of wonder.

Yes. Amen! But Tuesday morning I experienced a different truth: Moses spent more time in the desert—the ordinary dust and dirt— than he did on the mountain. The poor guy didn’t even get to see the journey to its conclusion. What began with a burning bush, with the mountainside ablaze with God’s presence, led to years of grumbling, stubbornness, and unfulfilled promise. Yes, God fulfilled the promise by giving the Israelites the promised land, but Moses didn’t get to experience it. He got a peek, then he died.

My point? Most of our lives… most of our teaching for those of us who do it for a living…is spent in the desert. It’s spent attending to the ordinary moments of complaining, ingratitude, and hard headedness…and I’m just talking about the teachers! Maybe, just maybe, this is what we’re called to—an ordinary faithfulness that remains steadfast in the face of glorious failure. We’re not told to be effective or efficient; we’re not promised triumphant success; we’re called to be faithful. Yes, we need to work hard, to prepare and engage the work joyfully and graciously, and yes, we need to celebrate those mountain top moments by taking off our shoes and thanking God for the in-breaking of grace and love. But we also need to thank God for the dust, for the ordinary classes where nothing much happens, for the boring routine that’s a crucial part of the journey between the mountain and the promised land.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

5 Comments

  • Fred Merkle says:

    Thanks, Jason. To cite an apocryphal, dubious Luther quote on teaching “You do the best you can, then forget about it and go have a beer”.

  • Diana says:

    I went back to college at age 55. What glorious years! A 30 page paper? No problem. Three semesters of Statistics? Climbed that mountain, too. Wish you were my professor. I think you just have to be old enough to yearn for it.

  • Amen. Been there. Perhaps the course you were in from me was like this from your student perspective … 😉

  • castaway5555 says:

    Thanks for this fine post … sadly, in our consumerist world, a world crammed less with God and more with “success stories and heroes,” it’s books about the “burning bush” that catch our attention, and after reading such books, folks spend years wondering why success and more burning bushes don’t show up; what they get is heat and sand aplenty. And so it is … with a reminder that maybe a burning bush gets our attention, but if we fixate on it, we’ll never endure the rest of the journey, which may well end with disappointment. The greatness of Moses isn’t the burning bush, but the struggle of all the years – his bitterness, his hurt and pain, his passion, even his sermon telling God to get God’s act together after the Golden Calf.

  • Helen Luhrs says:

    Just what I needed to hear today. Definitely dusty.

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