"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

21 August 2005

Imitation

When our grandson D. was one, we visited for a few days, and he fell in love with the boy (his uncle, only ten-eleven years older). D. had a beach ball that came nearly to his shoulders, which he loved to push around the room. The boy saw more potential, and one evening flung himself over the top of the ball and rode it to the ground, somersaulting away as he came down. D. thought this hilarious and decided he would do the same. As he threw himself at the ball, however, he quickly saw that the ride down would certainly be dangerous.

So he threw himself at the ball, jumped back from it, and dropped onto the floor in the exact same position as the boy’s when he landed from a somersault. Then he laughed wildly as he looked for our reaction, which was all he could possibly have hoped for.

They must have done this for half an hour, the boy somersaulting over the ball, D. imitating him to the best of his ability, the adults clapping and laughing at the fun, his mom and I wiping away tears of mirth.

It struck me later that perhaps we ask too much of ourselves and others when we try to imitate Jesus and godly folk we know. None of us expected D. to strictly imitate his uncle, to be able to do or even try the exact same actions. Rather, we delighted in his desire to imitate and applauded his vigorous efforts to do the best he could with his more childish abilities.

I wonder if the Father, laughing a bit at our awkwardness, applauds us a great deal more often than we realize, knowing that because we love Him we will continue to grow and to increase our ability to imitate His Son more closely. I wonder if we would grow more quickly if we rejoiced in His love instead of always fearing a wrath that is reserved not for us who are His children but for those who reject Him out of hand.

I hope that I can learn to accept more graciously both my own limitations and the limitations of others, seeing and rejoicing in the attempt to imitate, recognizing it as love which will lead to growth, instead of demanding an impossible perfection.

17 August 2005

Humbled

We are in the midst of faculty workshops. Monday, Jeff Myers, founder of Passing the Baton, International, inspired, convicted, encouraged us in our mentoring of young people. He is a gifted speaker and wise believer, passionate about the Lord and His work in people’s lives. I came away with a notebook full of insight that it will be a joy and a challenge to reflect on and consider.

But Jeff most humbled and encouraged me in a simple exchange when I greeted him before the seminar began.

Humbled not in the sense of humiliated or made me feel like a worm. Rather, humbled in the sense of making me understand the grace and loveliness of my Lord.

I haven’t seen Jeff in months. He no longer teaches at the college, and though he lives in town, our paths rarely cross. We were both involved with a national conference a few years ago, which had us on the same plane a couple of times in travels to Dallas for planning and Denver for the conference itself, and in the airports and between sessions, we got to know something of each other’s dreams and gifts and ways of knowing our Lord.

When I greeted Jeff Monday morning, the first thing he said was, “I prayed for you several times this summer.” Now, those of you who know me know that prayer is the most difficult of the disciplines for me. I try not to be a “get me out of this” pray-er, but it’s close. And I certainly haven’t been praying for Jeff. I’d thought of him now and then with gratefulness for his work and hope that his family was doing well, but not prayer, not speaking to God on his behalf.

But he had prayed for me several times. And I was humbled. Because his graciousness showed me once again the grace of the Lord, how He cares for us even when we don’t pay much attention to Him, upholds us when we are just sort of wandering along, calls us by His very kindness to remember Him.


It was a good summer. And Jeff reminded me that one reason is the prayers of people who love me enough to lift me up whether I know it or whether I have the discipline or love to do the same for others. To all of you, thanks. May God bless you richly for allowing His love to flow through you in this very special way.

12 August 2005

Liberal Arts and the Modern Student

I am currently reading Michael Oakeshott’s The Voice of Liberal Learning, a fascinating anthology of essays on education. It is a challenge; while I agree with a great deal that Oakeshott says, he seems – so far as I can tell at this point – to be starting from a different set of assumptions about the world and man’s place in it than I do. And so I am needing to be constantly aware of these assumptions and try to sort through how they affect his ideas and how that should affect my reading. It’s good; I need that sort of challenge to keep my own reading skills sharp and to remember what my students need to learn about responding to text themselves.

We talk a great deal about the “liberal arts”; most of our colleges and universities claim to offer a “liberal arts” education. I have long known that is not the case, nor is it even possible in the structure of the American institution of so-called higher education. If a student graduates with a liberal education, it will be because he has figured it out on his own, perhaps with a bit of encouragement from the few teachers who see the vast gap between the claim and the reality.

Oakeshott defines liberal learning with various emphases as he progresses through his first essay, “A Place of Learning.” This is my favorite articulation of his definition and will suffice to clarify what I mean by the term “liberal arts” (which, please note, has nothing to do with the political designations of liberal and conservative): Liberal learning is learning to respond to the invitations of the great intellectual adventures in which human beings have come to display their various understandings of the world and of themselves. Or as Arthur Holmes has also put it (in his book The Idea of a Christian College): the liberal arts are those which are appropriate to man as man, rather than to man in his specific function as a worker or as a professional or even as a scholar.

The point of Oakeshott’s essay is to clarify what this venture should mean and the importance of a special place – school – where it can be accomplished (or perhaps “begun” is a better word; it is a lifelong task). Along the way he discusses various problems in the modern academy which come about because of its capitulation to the demands of modern culture. But towards the end, he describes what modern culture has done to the students who come to us, and challenges the university to find a way to reach them instead of accommodate them. I offer a lengthy quote from this section as a challenge to myself as this new semester begins – to remember that this accurately describes many of my students, and to remember that it is worth the effort to hold out to them continually the opportunity to see the world in different terms, no matter how strenuously they may resist my efforts. (I’ve added a couple of paragraph breaks to the following quote to make it easier to follow in this format.)

The world in which many children now grow up is crowded, not necessarily with occupants and not at all with memorable experiences, but with happenings; it is a ceaseless flow of seductive trivialities which invoke neither reflection nor choice but instant participation. A child quickly becomes aware that he cannot too soon plunge into this flow or immerse himself in it too quickly; to pause is to be swept with the chilling fear of never having lived at all. There is little chance that his perceptions, his emotions, his admirations and his ready indignations might become learned responses or be even innocent fancies of his own; they come to him prefabricated, generalized and uniform. He lurches from one modish conformity to the next, or from one fashionable guru to his successor, seeking to lose himself in a solidarity composed of exact replicas of himself.

From an early age children now believe themselves to be well-informed about the world, but they know it only at second hand in the pictures and voices that surround them. It holds no puzzles or mysteries for them; it invites neither careful attention nor understanding. As like as not they know the moon as something to be shot at or occupied before ever they have had the chance to marvel at it. This world has but one language, soon learned: the language of appetite. The idiom may be that of the exploitation of resources of the earth, or it may be that of seeking something for nothing; but this is a distinction without a difference. It is a language composed of meaningless clich├ęs. It allows only the expression of “points of view” and the ceaseless repetition of slogans which are embraced as prophetic utterances.

Their ears are filled with the babel of invitations to instant and unspecified reactions and their utterance reproduces only what they have heard said. Such discourse as there is resembles the barking of a dog at the echo of its own yelp. School in these circumstances is notably unimportant. To a large extent it has surrendered its character as a place apart where utterances of another sort may be heard and languages other than the language of appetite may be learned. Its affords no seclusion, it offers no release. Its furnishings are the toys with which those who come are already familiar. Its virtues and vices are those of the surrounding world.


These, then, are circumstances hostile to a disposition to recognize the invitation of liberal learning: that is, the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves. How shall a university respond to the current aversion from seclusion, to the now common belief that there are other and better ways of becoming human than by learning to do so, and to the impulsive longing to be given a doctrine or to be socialized according to a formula rather than to be initiated into a conversation? Not, I think, by seeking excuses for what sometimes seem unavoidable surrenders, nor in any grand gesture of defiance, but in a quiet refusal to compromise which comes only in self-understanding. We must remember who we are: inhabitants of a place of liberal learning.

09 August 2005

Pleasing People; Pleasing God

The boy has had a wonderful attitude about his schoolwork lately. We started his semester formally last week, and he’s worked hard and been quite cheerful. The other day he asked me, “Have I had a better attitude this year?” I’d complimented him on it several times, but he can always use more affirmation and I’m glad to reassure him. I want him to know that I’m pleased with him.

A couple of weeks ago he told me about a Sunday School occurrence. They had visitors in class and the teacher asked him to bring them up to date on the discussion they’d been having. He said his classmates laughed at the request, apparently thinking he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was glad to hear that he was clearly proud that he proved them wrong, and proud to have pleased his teacher.

This morning I was praying for him, asking the Lord to remind him to retain that cheerful attitude and the desire to please his authorities. And a little voice said accusingly, “So, you want him to be a people-pleaser?”

It’s a question to consider. We’re told to do our work to the Lord, not as to men, to be God-pleasers, not man-pleasers. But . . .

How do we learn to please the Lord? He places authorities in our lives, mainly our parents and then certain teachers and other adults. We are expected to obey these authorities with a good will, and often (sadly, not always, because it’s a broken world) we will receive the reward of their pleasure.

I think this reward is intended to be our taste of divine pleasure, to prepare us for understanding the Lord’s pleasure in our cheerful obedience when the pleasure of man is nowhere to be found, when obedience to Him brings silence, mockery, or persecution. The child who does not experience the pleasure of adults in his attempts to please them will surely, sad to say, struggle more to understand this, though through God’s grace all things are possible.

I have a friend who grew up being told she couldn’t experience problems because problems meant she wasn’t right with the Lord; thus, the fear of those around her – the fear of losing God’s pleasure, even His grace for salvation – precluded any real rest in Him, any picture of His pleasure in her. She now walks with Him in a lovely faithfulness which awes me. But perhaps she could have been spared at least a few of the extraordinary struggles to trust that she’s experienced if she’d been allowed the freedom to be fallen along with true simple pleasure in her efforts to “get it right,” however successful or flawed those efforts might have been on any given day.

Oh, I know the Lord is sovereign, and even when we sin He is still in control (and it’s a good thing, too). He has used my friend in ways that would otherwise have been impossible because of those very struggles she has endured. Still, knowing that He can bring good from even our sin doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get it right in the first place.

May we have the grace each day to let our pleasure in our son lead him to desire obedience, even when we must correct him. And may his delight in our pleasure help him to understand and experience God’s pleasure as he learns to walk with and for Him instead of us.

08 August 2005

Perspectives

Pippin to Merry in the Houses of Healing in Gondor: "Dear me! We Tooks and Brandybucks, we can't live long on the heights."

"No," said Merry. "I can't. Not yet, at any rate. But at least, Pippin, we can now see them, and honour them. It is best to love first what you are fitted to love, I suppose: you must start somewhere and have some roots, and the soil of the Shire is deep. Still there are things deeper and higher; and not a gaffer could attend his garden in what he calls peace but for them, whether he knows about them or not. I am glad that I know about them, a little."

And Frodo to Sam as they meet the Elves on the way to the Havens, where Frodo will go over the sea in search of healing: "I have been too deeply hurt [to stay in the Shire], Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them."

05 August 2005

August Heat

I’ve been researching inheritance issues, thinking of death and taxes all day, and I step out onto the porch to relax. At first I think the shimmering of the air has to do with my eyes adjusting from fine print to distance, but when it doesn’t go away I realize that steam is literally rising from the ground and creating a mist as it mingles with the August heat and humidity. Even Barney, the neighbors' generally extraverted and enthusiastic Schnauzer, can’t find the energy to come all the way across the yard to greet me, merely wagging his tail and nodding a bit as if in apology. The few coreopsis blooms droop on their stems, and the dogwood leaves hang limp and still. The rosebushes look like thorny limbs with a few yellow and brown insect-riddled leaves and matching dead blossoms. A sparrow lands on the porch, no more than three yards from me, and sits lazily despite the gentle rocking of my chair until the rattling of the doorknob above his head rouses him to reluctant and indignant flight. The heaviness of the atmosphere accurately reflects my mood.

Looking further, I see that a rim of light pink clouds circles the sky just above the hazy mountain tops, their pastel color reflected and enhanced in the baby crepe myrtle bravely raising its magenta flowers upwards, with a courageous daylily alongside it encouraging this rebellion against the heaviness and heat. The buzzing of locusts fills the air, reminding me of summer evenings long ago in Kansas, dodging croquet wickets on the lawn while chasing fireflies with my brother in the rapidly dimming light. The heat, the humidity, the numbing pages of depressing information, all fade in the sudden realization of beauty past and present, and I go back to my task with a lighter heart.

03 August 2005

Blocked

I know writers who claim there is no such thing as writer’s block. I suspect if I had to make my living writing I would find this to be true. However, since I make my living teaching, with all its attendant components – creating syllabi, preparing each day's work, grading papers, not to mention actually meeting classes and conferencing with individual students – the writing is not as a rule immediately compelling. I would like to believe that the ability to do it periodically disappears for that reason. It would at least supply an excuse.

However, the block often occurs when I actually have time on my hands (relatively speaking). This is depressing, to say the least, and seems inexplicable. I know full well that the solution to my present difficulty will suddenly appear just as I am sitting in faculty workshop (no doubt while the dean or president is speaking on some absolutely vital topic and I am sitting in such a place that my mental non-attendance will be noted) or when I am finally getting the freshman comp website done ten minutes before the first class meeting. At which point I will tear my hair in frustration, at least mentally, and try not to curse my wayward muse, at least not aloud.

The pressure of a deadline or a great deal to do has always been good for my writing. Of course, this can be frustrating for me and for those around me, as I try to juggle the urgent (the everyday “stuff”) with the important (the writing). Is the writing worth it? I’ve read so many writers recently, the ones who say they cannot not write, the ones who say this is delusional arrogance, the ones who reduce writing to craft, the ones who elevate it to religion. I know that writing keeps me sane. That alone is enough to tell me I must be careful not to neglect it for the urgent.

But I want to finish something someday, something worth having spent the time and the energy it took and worth the sacrifices that I and others make for it. Today, my husband is 53 – which means I will be the same in just two months. Time is running out.

And now I read, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Wisdom. Ah, yes, wisdom is the goal, not publication. Is this writing contributing to my wisdom, my understanding of God and His reality? If so, and if that wisdom is applied in the urgencies of my everyday life, then the writing is worth it, whatever its worldly fate.

“Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding; for her proceeds are better than profits of silver, and her gain than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 3:13-15).

Thanks to Him once again for the check, for the eternal perspective. May I keep it clearly in heart as well as mind as the daily round of a school year begins again, and may I keep Him before all else as I enter it.

Followers