The last twelve days for me have been particularly eye-opening for two reasons. First, I’ve been almost totally removed from my usually setting as a higher ed person/math prof/tech geek and instead have been a stay-at-home dad to my 2- and 4-year old daughters as they’ve been out of preschool. Second, my family’s recent foray into the Lutheran church kindled in me a desire to follow the church calendar, particularly during the Advent season which has just ended. It’s given me a great deal of perspective on my usual role as math prof — particularly in the area of my vocation as an educator. (The whole idea of vocation is central to the Lutheran approach, and it’s really brought home, literally, in being around my kids so much.)
One particular advent reading has left a big imprint on the way I think about my vocation. I was using a prayer book to do devotionals during Advent, and the invocation for the week leading up to the third Sunday of advent said this:
O Lord God, whose chosen dwelling is the heart of the lowly; We give Thee thanks that thou didst reveal thyself in the hold child Jesus, thereby sanctifying all childhood in Him.
What struck me from this prayer is the idea that childhood — and by extension, adolescence and the particular post-adolescent age group I teach — was something so important to God that it was part of the Incarnation. The story of Jesus didn’t have to unfold with His becoming a baby and living a full human lifespan. He could have simply appeared out of the desert having been created at age 30. But that’s not how it worked out; God really wanted the Son to have had contact will all the major phases of human development.
Which means that Jesus, in His time on earth, was an 18-22-year old. And he was a student, although obviously not in a university. God didn’t have Jesus simply skip over those years to get to the good parts of His life, the ones that make up the majority of the Gospels in the New Testament. That time of life was important to God, so much so that He wanted to make sure He experienced it Himself as a human being.
With that realization, it will be difficult for me — as a Christian professor who believes this stuff about Jesus — to look at 18-22-year olds the exact same way I have been. College students are in a unique phase of their lives. They are in a position in which it is their job to think, to question, to study, to learn, and to develop intellectually. That job is a struggle, one for which our culture and (to a great extent) our school systems have neither prepared them intellectually nor helped them even acquire a taste. They need help. Giving that help is my vocation.
I became a college professor because I love learning, and also because when I was a college student — smart in a lot of ways and miserably stupid in others — I needed somebody to come alongside me and help me chart my course. Somebody who was intelligent, who respected and pushed my intelligence, somebody who would listen to and understand my thoughts and interests no matter how lame or nerdy they were and no matter whether they thought or were interested in the same. I had glimpses of that kind of person in high school and college, but I didn’t really find that person until graduate school. I wish I had a person like that earlier. And I think the reason I am a teacher and not an actuary or NSA cryptanalyst or something more lucrative and less frustrating is that I really want to be that person to the students around me who need (want) one.
God thought enough of the age group I work with to do it Himself on our terms. Then He equipped me with the tools to go farther — and I can’t help but think the reason is that He wants me to be present to these students in one kind way He was present with us through Christ, that is, to give help and an ear to those in need.
I don’t go in for New Year’s resolutions, but making this happen to a greater extent that it has been happening is something I really want to accomplish in 2008.