Pandemic reflection on a pin oak tree

The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.

Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.

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Clarity of mission

In a week when thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest, two essays about the state of higher education used provocative, poster-worthy questions for their titles. The problem with rhetorical questions is that they can have the effect of smugly shutting down a conversation. These two essays, however, have the opposite effect: they open up the set of concerns and direct us to think carefully about how we want to proceed. Both, in their own way, call us back to a sense of institutional mission.

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Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility

Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.

It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.

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Resiliency vs. Audacity

“We hear a lot of chatter these days about the importance of resilience in higher education — now more than ever as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the lives of students. I’ve come to find it an insipid concept.” These are the opening words of a provocative short essay by Piedmont College professor Carson Webb which appeared recently on the Australian Broadcasting Portal (ABC)’s Religion and Ethics portal. Titled “Against Resilience,” Carson goes on to describe an encounter with a young man named Emilio whose life story helped him reconsider the much-touted virtue of resilience.

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Form and Formation II: The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

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A paradox at the heart of Christian Higher Education

In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”

Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.

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The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

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The Grace of Troubling Questions

Finding good work to do—work that can enrich and satisfy the soul, not just for a moment but for a lifetime—is an incredible gift of grace.

That gift can enter our lives in such mysterious ways, however, that we often fail to see it for what it is. In fact, grace can sometimes appear in such profoundly negative ways—in defeat or despair or rejection, for example—that we often resist the very grace that can make us whole.

In my case, the grace that opened up a lifetime of good and satisfying work first appeared in the form of deeply troubling questions about the church in which I was raised, the Church of Christ.

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The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love

My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.

The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.

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