The Bridge Called September

There is a view from
the bridge called September
by which one can see
a road, calling
wayfarers to
turn onto it and so into
themselves:
curious,
brave and
trembling on holy ground.

Many have stepped
onto this path –
some singing,
some swearing,
most sweating –
but all who enter there
never see the world
the same again.

Some of us are given
the grace to walk for a time with
those on this journey. Do
not think I take it
for granted.

With each step of each pilgrim

my heart races and

my soul soars and

my mind burns at a hint of a future.

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No Fait Accompli

Last Friday I made my annual pilgrimage to OUF, the Ontario University Fair.  It is the largest university fair in our area with thousands of students descending on the Toronto Convention Centre to scope out options for universities, or more often, to make decisions regarding which Open Houses to attend.  It is a bit of a chaotic affair, with most students generally uncertain as to which program they want, while a very few know exactly what they want.  Not too many are hunting for theology programs (although it does happen!). Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, where I work, is a federated school of Wilfrid Laurier University and I am there representing both institutions.   I mostly ferry students from the edge of the Laurier carpet to another professor or student ambassador after discerning specific or general areas of interest.  I rather enjoy the day.  I get to meet excited and nervous students, connect with colleagues from the campus that I do not normally see, and bookend the event with a train ride.

 

Every year, the event sets my mind to the topic of education.  Universities are funny places, where most of the people who teach have little to no formal education in education.  Our university works hard to provide opportunity to sharpen skills, with special sessions, regular workshops, and staff who meet with faculties to develop their pedagogy.  At the same time, there is a recurring perceived conflict between research and education in upper education.  Some see teaching as a distraction from pure research, some see the two to be mutually informative, and some are really rather happy to have a career where the focus is on curriculum.

 

I remember hearing , some years ago, a professor make the observation that his vision of teaching changed as he realized that he was not teaching a subject matter but students. This seems sound, so long as the subject matter isn’t lost in the mix.  Our university, with its “inspiring lives” tagline invites me and my peers to imagine that inspiration is purported to be at the core of our mission, whether our focus is on research, or teaching, or both.

 

Of course, theologians know this word well in relation to scripture, and the claims that the Bible is somehow “inspired” or God-breathed.  In light of that, it might be a bit ambitious for us to imagine that we can inspire anyone.  Still, I think the word appropriate when pronounced with the proviso that inspiration is something that happens unawares.  As both professor and writer, I generally have no idea what will take off among my various audiences.  The best laid plans for a lecture run astray and seemingly unsatisfactory prose sings unexpectedly. Inspiration happens even though – or perhaps because – we do not have God at our beck and call.  The Spirit works in strange ways that sometimes and somehow echoes through what we do, bouncing back to teachers and authors who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

 

At the end of the day, education is sketched in mystery.  It seems like the stars have to align for those “magic” moments to occur.  And yet, they happen.  I ache for those moments, and so gladly travel to OUF, to look for the face of this student or that, who is passionate about learning and is joyfully curious about the allure of trails unknown; places where we discover whom we are, and that we will never be a fait accompli.

Around the Corner Time

The end of August marks a kind of turning point for me, for colleagues, and for our students and their families.  It is a kind of time that might be named a “cusp time” or perhaps an “around the corner time” as per my blog title.  In my world, professors begin to turn their attention from summer research and writing projects to syllabi and committee responsibilities, but more importantly we begin to think about the students that will soon grace our days and classrooms.  They are beginning to show up, now in a hallway, now in an office.  And even the presence of those not yet here is palpable.

 

These are the days in which I think I have one of the best jobs in the world: I get to walk with young, and not so young, adventurers in learning.  Their eager emails tell me that they have great expectations, and they have every right to look forward with longing for the changes, challenges and expansion that come with learning.  Education is aptly named in that its Latin roots mean to lead out.  Education is a process whereby we are led out of our sometimes sheltered lives into a vision of a world hungry for peace, and daily bread, and freedom to believe according to your conscience.  Education is a profound responsibility, both for teacher and learner who together learn that they are both even while we cannot escape the truth that we each have particular responsibilities.

 

The adventure is around the corner.

 

It never ceases to amaze me that what is around the corner cannot remain there.  Rather like the cross and resurrection cast a particular frame, or perhaps light on the life of Jesus, portentous events never quite stay “around the corner” even while they have not yet quite arrived.  The hallways bustle even while they are yet empty.  There is a presence that marks this time.  “Haunted” is not quite the right word, but it catches the “paranormal” sense of this pregnant time.

 

I remember well the excitement with which I anticipated school as a youngster.  The freedom of the summer slowly gave way to the expectation of the fall.  These two “season feelings” were so very different, and yet each important and mutually informative.  These “around the corner” times are times of opening: petal to sun, child to chum and mind to mystery.

More than Parchment

This last Friday, our school celebrated Convocation.  Students, who have spent two  three, four, perhaps more years with us made their way across the stage, newly hooded and eager to shake the hand of the university President, our seminary’s Principal Dean and then to hold in their hand a piece of parchment.  Now they will be Masters of Divinity, Masters of Arts in Theology, and Doctors of Ministry.  As I stood to congratulate them as they wound their way from the stage back to their seats, I could sense both excitement and a bit of trepidation.  Endings are odd events.  A sense of completion and satisfaction attends them as well as uncertainty and that anomie that accompanies a future not yet crystalized.

 

Convocation is not only an emotionally charged event for the students; staff and faculty too have mixed feelings.  We are so very proud of the hard work that has enabled our graduates to achieve a goal that will hopefully open new doors for them.  But with them, we also experience a little bit of sadness.  Many of these students have shared themselves in hallway conversations and class papers.  While writing on topics of theology, more than a few have poured out their hearts, making me aware of their experiences, their passions, their hopes and fears.  They have shared themselves with me.  I am changed by my students.  I am not being polite in saying this.  I really do feel myself shaped by the encounters that make up my experience as a teacher.  I suppose, I too, share something of myself with them along with the facts about history, theological vistas, and hopefully some passion for our subject matter.  Something happens in this interchange that really includes a change in me.  I am forever being prodded, challenged and stretched.  Many of them have experiences that are foreign to me.  Many of them have interests that are embryonic in me.  They all bring something to the table, and I am the better for it.  So I lament their walk across that stage even as I celebrate it.

 

Students really are in some ways like a book.  They need to be read with both a lot respect and a little bit of appreciative criticism.  Sometimes they want to generalize their experiences, and sometimes they discount their experiences; sometimes they can’t get out of their heads, and sometimes they really don’t want to get into them.  Of course, all of this is true of me as well.  But if I am willing to encounter them with the supposition that they have something to offer me, I will never be disappointed.  I might not like what I learn, but I always learn from them.  Hopefully, I’m able to return the favor.  So in this season of convocation, I’m mindful that two words hide in this synonym for graduation.  “Vocation” is rooted in the Latin word for call (vocare) and the Latin preposition con means “with.”  To convocate is to be “called with.”  No-one convocates on their own because we are all called to learn with others and to teach with others.  Knowledge is only knowledge in its being a shared phenomenon.  I thank God for my students, my teachers, and this gift called learning.  The parchment is important, but what really matters never ends.  Learning feeds that hunger that paradoxically feeds humanity.

Old Friends

I just returned from the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference. Some 15, 000 academics or so descended upon Baltimore to discuss things religious. When I first attended AAR I didn’t know a soul. That was especially intimidating. As the years go by, this event becomes more like a homecoming. You might find four or five sessions you want to attend, and on the way to one or the other, you bump into an old friend and get chatting, and soon you have missed them all. For the last number of years, a kind of ritual has emerged that is increasingly important to me. On one evening, I have occasion to dine with a dear old friend, who is old in years of age rather than years of friendship.

I first met this octogenarian ten years ago. He contributed to a Festschrift for my advisor. At that time, T. was familiar to me only in name. He was an established scholar in my area – world renown in fact – yet had something of a teddy bear demeanor. Over the last few years the mutual friendship we had with my advisor became the bridge for our own friendship, and so I yearly look forward to his warmth and hospitality.

T. has so much to share, but is one of those gentle souls who have mastered the art of tricking his interlocutor into doing all the talking. He is genuinely interested in people, and draws out the best in everyone. This year, I managed to persuade him to tell me a bit about his experience in university life, and was astounded to discover that he spent his career in the Faculty of Education, where he taught on the topic of the philosophy of education. In fact, he published some 7 books in this area, even while he is famous among scholars of religion and theologians for translating and commenting on the work of a celebrated 19th Century theologian and philosopher.

It is always humbling to meet such people: brilliant yet warm – patient and down to the earth. Here is a stranger to pretension who invites those fortunate enough to be his fellow sojourners to join him in the art of deferring attention from the self to the subject matter. A little time with T. each year gifts me with curiousity, the very virtue that allows him to age without acerbity.

May his tribe increase.