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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

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Daniel Carlson says:

    Thank you for sharing this wise analogy and lovely song; both are a blessing to me as I know I prepare to return to the teaching ministry within the congregation!

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    Thank you.

  • I needed this, Jennifer. Thank you. And the song is now in my playlist.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    The analogy of river rafting certainly fits. The song is again a reminder that Christ covers all the nooks and crannies of our lives. Thank you, blessings for the new academic year of guiding, hopefully interested and interesting students.

  • Daniell Bos says:

    I am blessed this morning!

  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Jennifer – and like the Oxford clerk, in this another new season, may you “gladly learn and gladly teach.”

  • Nancy says:

    Having just rafted in Denali last week. Your metaphor captured our trip and is an apt metaphor for learning. Thanks Jennifer

  • Deb VD says:

    I’m so glad you have these blog post deadlines because wow, what you end up writing continues to be such a gift to me. I’m a big fan of The Porter’s Gate (and was sad to miss the concert at Calvin!) but hadn’t yet heard this song. Thanks for putting it on my radar and thanks for the rich river-rafting metaphor to help me frame my work.

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