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High up a winding alpine road, at almost the very top of a narrow canyon, stood the 1920s log cabin my parents purchased in the early 1990s. They were just becoming empty nesters, and they relished being able to drive from their desert home in Las Cruces, NM, over the Organ Mountains, through the heat of the Tularosa Basin (home of White Sands, now National Park) and into the cool air of the Village of Ruidoso, some 7000 feet in altitude, in the shadow of the Sierra Blanca range and the Lincoln National Forest (home of Smokey the Bear). Over the years, whenever my siblings and I were home, we’d always make time for a trip to the little cabin with the red metal roof and the gorgeous stone chimney. 

After my mother died, my father still retreated to the cabin some time most every week for the next 20 years–cross-country skiing in winter, hiking in summer. Situated steps from the Rio Ruidoso, the cabin had a steady parade of wildlife in front of the porch, including the bears who provided my dad with quite a few tales to tell. We nicknamed it “The Bear’s Den,” and we continued to gather there as a family, whenever we could, under the red metal roof and in the warmth of the gorgeous stone chimney. 

Eventually, now in his 80s, my dad decided going up alone each week to the mountains probably wasn’t the wisest choice and so, he made his young near-neighbors—who owned a cabin rental business—a deal on our beloved cabin with its red metal roof and gorgeous stone chimney. 

That happened just pre-COVID. I followed the cabin rental business on social media, and after everyone emerged from lockdown, it was gratifying to see that a new generation of people were enjoying our snug little getaway. 

But you may have seen that Ruidoso was in the news recently because of the devastating South Fork and Salt Fires that engulfed the town last month, forcing everyone to evacuate, and eventually, killing two people and destroying over 25,000 acres and 1,400 structures–including what had been our cabin for 30 years. The canyon was especially hard hit, both by the fires and the flood that followed, and the folks who own the cabin rental company sustained heavy losses to their livelihood.

As they reported on the aftermath of the fires and flood on social media, they included pictures of “The Bear’s Den.” The scene of wreckage was intense. Still, after 100 years, the only thing left standing unscathed was the gorgeous stone chimney.

When I reported the survival of the chimney to my (social media-less) dad, he wasn’t surprised, given its craftsmanship. And he said something that struck me: “You’ve got to honor the guy and his crew who built such an enduring thing.”

I imagine it hit me because I wonder how much we do honor all the hands, mostly anonymous to us over the centuries, that strive to build for the long-term. Often when I sit in a millennia-old church in Italy, as I did in May, I wonder about all it has taken (the meetings, the compromises, the fundraising, etc) to keep the doors open, century after century. The real, unglamorous work of real human hands. Living stones used by the Spirit to accomplish divine building projects.

Abstract critique is easy. Actual construction is difficult.

It’s funny: this past spring, it was reported to me that someone had characterized me as an “institutionalist.” To which I responded, “did they mean that positively or negatively?” The usual take, of course, would be negative, code for the unquestioning “company man,” the faithful factotum, the toady to the powerful, always willing to place the wishes of the institution above all else. Not very flattering. (When I told this story at a workshop recently, there was an audible gasp in the room at the term). 

My interlocutor wasn’t so sure of the intention. And I began to wonder then at the ways I would define the term positively, even as I acknowledge that institutions themselves, like all else in the fallen world are very broken (an obvious assertion, if there ever was one) and that sometimes it is absolutely imperative to leave them on principle or work against them for reasons of justice. I do not believe in institutions for institutions’ sake–nor do I underestimate the real damages familial, ecclesiastical, political, and every other kind of institution have done throughout history (and that continue to do). 

Still: I am that increasingly rare person who has, so far, spent an entire career at one institution, deeply invested in its welfare. Over those twenty-six years, I have served on endless committees and task forces, written all kinds of university documents, taken on different leadership roles. I guess that makes me an “institutionalist,” by one measure. But I have not done this work in order to preserve or defend an institution, but instead to try and contribute to a place where the living stones I live with, my colleagues and my students, are being fashioned together into a edifice pleasing to God and the work God has for all of us.

What I love about my father’s statement is that it recognizes these efforts–of both the individual and the community–to do the hard, unglamorous work that institutions require. One of the gifts of Reformed theology is that ours is a generous hermeneutic, one that says we do not believe in a top-down interpretative mode, but one where we act like the Bereans, studying together to see “whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). This takes sustained institutional structures to do well, but with them in place, asking questions and searching for answers with my colleagues is a richly Reformed project of building towards shalom, not the opposite. Loving God with our mind is active and engaged–not passive consent to a checklist. This mode of working, I continue to believe, even in an imperfect place, is the best thing we’ve got to accomplish our shared mission.

We are at such a critical time in so many institutions, big and small, right now. And I’m under no delusion that much of what is being built will, no doubt, be consumed in refining fire. The challenge: what are we building? With whom? And will it be the enduring “gorgeous stone chimney” that we hope?

Photo credit: Mescalero Apache Tribe

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.


  • Christopher Poest says:

    This is a good word, Jennifer. Thank you.

  • RZ says:

    Well done, Jennifer. Subtle, gentle, constructively hopeful. Kind of like the Bereans.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    First Corinthians 3:10-15.

  • Ruth Boven says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    One of the great mysteries of faith is the incarnation. God is embodied in the stuff of the world and taught us thereby that the material and spiritual worlds are harmonious. Our deepest Christian principles are expressed in bodies. How could this be without institutions, without the complexities of our life together? Your words are an encouragement to all of us to stay committed to this sometimes difficult sometimes wonderous life together.

  • Joanie Rosema says:

    Your “gorgeous stone chimney” is now forever imprinted in my mind. I hope this is us, refined by fire, going forward. What a beautiful image. Thank you!

  • Jim says:

    You and me both, sister. So much pain when “the violent bear it away.” But still the work to do, nonetheless.

  • Judy Nelson says:

    So beautifully written Jennifer. This imagery is inspiring and memorable; you are kind to share this personal experience with us.

  • Anon says:

    Sorry to hear the cabin was destroyed but appreciate your insights in the aftermath. Like you, I was an institutionalist for many years with three decades of service to my employer. But then times got tough, and the employer decided it couldn’t keep me on any longer. I think the next generation(s) have seen a lot of that in recent years and decided that if being an institutionalist was a one-way street, they’d make pick a different route for their own journey. Can’t say I blame them.

  • Daniel Miller says:

    I think an institutionalist is the opposite of a “shopper” as in “church shopper” (rhymes with “hopper.”)

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you so very much, Jennifer. Your thoughts offer constructive hope for sure. Yet I believe that many of us are wondering about and praying for that institution you have so faithfully served after the forest fire of June 11 on that very campus. Was it refining or merely a catastrophic foretaste of ruination?

  • Gary VanderArk says:


  • Henry Baron says:

    Thank you, Jennifer, for so artfully positing the metaphor of the beloved cabin and its gorgeous, indestructible chimney in our troubled minds – sadness and hope.

  • David Landegent says:

    Thanks for your good words. I have often reminded committees in churches I served that I became a pastor because of God’s grace, but also because some thankless committee out there had to make hard decisions about staffing, rental, insurance, policies, etc. concerning the coffeehouse that stoked my faith. And sorry about the loss of your cabin. My son worked at a Native American church at Mescalero, mere miles away from the Riodoso fire. So I know the area.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Jennifer, I think you were probably at an RJ meeting 10-12 years ago when we were trying to define ourselves, mission/vision, etc. One of the terms we claimed was “Institutionalist” — meaning most of had given our lives to colleges, congregations, and denominations. The term has come upon tough times, not without some good reasons, but perhaps anti-institutionalist is the common denominator of our social woes, from church to politics. “Tribal” was another maligned word we claimed for ourselves that day.

  • Jeff Japinga says:

    I am deeply grateful for the words you have given to an identity I too have claimed and tried to live out faithfully. Thank you for sharing your gift of words and meaning.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    So sorry about the cabin. I imagine there is grief there you’re not talking about in this post. I have seen your work as an institutionalist for most of my career, and I am always grateful for it. Yes, it’s unglamorous and mostly thankless. In fact, one usually gets crap for it. But I thank you.

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    Thank you Jennifer for this tender story and deep hope. I am so sorry about this loss. And so grateful for your always creative and generous institutional work – I have been a witness to some of it. And I am thankful as well that there are folks who continue to articulate and work to preserve what is so valuable in the face of the fires.

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