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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.