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It’s the beginning of a new school year–my 51st consecutive year of beginning school since I first toddled off to preschool in the mists of the early 70s, excited to start learning.
I’m still excited.
But of course, it has also long been my work. Last week, I spoke at King University in Bristol, TN, about good and bad metaphors that help us imagine what the nature of that work should be. After all, the aims of higher education have rarely been as contentious as they are now–with disappearing consensus about what it’s all for. But, borrowing from an essay by my friend and former colleague, Chip Pollard, now president of John Brown University, I adopted one of his images and argued that the very best experience of Christian higher education should be akin to river-rafting: exciting and unpredictable and sometimes a little dangerous, depending on the class of river you’re running. There are things in the river that can knock us off-course, challenge our skills of navigation—in the same way that classes ask us to grapple with new, complex ways of thinking about the world. River-rafting will feel uncomfortable sometimes. It will be wet and cold and maybe scary on occasion. But because it’s a river raft, not a kayak, it’s important to remember that we go together down the stream. To be successful, it takes all of us, rowing together, to make the journey. Everyone has to paddle.
As a professor, I like that river-rafting needs a guide. In this analogy, professors are folks who have been down the river many times. They are experienced with novice paddlers and know what to do when folks fall out of the boat. They know the contours of the river, its pitfalls and its beauties—even as there are new things for them to navigate, too. In other words, they have to learn, too. That’s the fun and challenge of being a guide. It’s always a new river. Best of all, there’s a relationship between guides and the members of the boat: we need to all be sharing what we’re seeing on the river. We have to be fellow learners.
Still for all the beauty and camaraderie, it takes energy and stamina and strength. It is work. And of course, you might think now of to what you yourself turn your labor. What are metaphors for that work? How do you imagine the pleasures and perils of it?
Towards the end of the summer, the wonderful Worship Institute at Calvin organized a concert, featuring members of The Porter’s Gate. The Porter’s Gate describes themselves as “sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church.” Together, they have produced albums on Neighbors, Justice, Lament, Climate, and this year: Work. What I really appreciate about their work is its rootedness in the nitty gritty of daily life, the realness of its naming a range of emotions from disappointment to anger to joy.
One of the songs that most spoke to me at the concert was written by Wendell Kimbrough (check out his new solo album, too) & Dan Wheeler. It takes a text long dear to me, “The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” and relates it to all the hard things parts of that journey down the river of our work.
May it bless you this morning in whatever season of labor you find yourself.
The Breastplate of Saint Patrick When my work takes me places I don’t want to go Christ before me And my heart aches with sorrow as I hit the road Christ be with me When the care of my family takes all that I have Christ within me When I’m worn and exhausted, ashamed that I’m mad Christ defend me I rise up today in a strength that is not my own I’m held by the promise of God that I’m never alone When I’m tossed to the side and I want to give up Christ beside me When I’m busting my ass but it’s never enough (And I’m working so hard…) Christ beside me When I work hard but someone else gets the reward God’s eyes see me I ask for promotion and they shut the door God’s ears hear me When I climb the first steps toward a long-held dream Christ above me And I leap out in faith and I hope to find wings Christ beneath me