Fruit in Drought

Shadowing the Army Corps of Engineers
It’s not as interesting as shadowing a college history professor, but following around an Army engineer is pretty good – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

As I wrote this post yesterday, I was being shadowed.

It was the first time I’ve had anyone ask about setting up a job shadow, and while I was happy to give it a try, I also worried that it would chiefly consist of the student sitting and watching me type at my laptop (with interruptions for a class or two, having lunch, getting mail, and running off photocopies).

And there was a lot of that. (Including me pausing to explain to him that I was blogging — about him.)

But it also made me realize the diversity and fluidity of my work:

  • I had two classes yesterday, and they couldn’t have been less alike. I spent an hour in the morning putting the finishing touches on the PowerPoint for an intro-level gen ed class on Christianity and Western Culture (CWC). We were looking at the decline of the Western Roman Empire and Augustine’s City of God (written partly to refute neo-pagan arguments that Christianity was to blame for Roman decline). In addition to the historical and theological points, we touched on the difficulties of measuring religious adherence and behavior, reflected on our memories of 9/11 (and why Americans assign “9/11” to a fateful event in 2011 rather than, say, one in 1973), and heard a variety of responses to the problem of American military intervention in the Syrian civil war.
  • Then at the end of the day I met with my eight HIS354 Modern Europe students to conclude a two-class mini-unit on gender and family in Victorian England. We discussed Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, not only asking what it has to say about marriage, divorce, sexuality, gender roles, science, and faith in an ostensibly modern society, but how historians make use of diaries like Isabella Robinson’s. Oh, and this was all over tea, eating scones that I made early that morning from a recipe in the famous 1861 cookbook/household manual, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
  • Outside of those formal teaching moments… I spent twenty minutes talking with a student from Ethiopia about Platonic philosophy, just laws, Hellenization, and other themes likely to show up on next week’s CWC exam, and appreciated hearing how much she’s enjoyed taking a history class that addresses Christianity.
  • Then another student wanted to talk about using a January travel course in Greece and Turkey taught by a biblical studies professor to complete a History minor.
  • The father of one of my favorite alumni stopped in to introduce himself and thank me for teaching his son.
  • I sent in a contract for a book project that I’ll soon be announcing here.
  • Over lunch with my guest for the day, a colleague and I gave him our views on graduate education. To his credit, he wasn’t completely scared off.
  • I continued to make plans for our Homecoming event next Saturday on “Linking Liberal Arts with Life after Bethel,” mentioned Thursday in my post on the value of the Christian liberal arts as explained by a Bethel alumna (which I got to share with the rest of our faculty yesterday morning).
  • I started to write a tribute to a friend who died earlier this week — look for that Monday.

It’s an odd mix of activities, but a rich one — my days rarely feel like they’re repeating themselves. I enjoy enormous freedom within my work, and rarely fear that it’s labor without purpose or meaning. Most of my closest friends are people with whom I work. And all that is worth celebrating, especially these days.

If you haven’t picked up on it yet from some of the posts and links I’ve shared in recent months, this is going to be a tough year for all of us at Bethel University. Like many colleges and universities, public and private, religious and secular, large and small, we’ve got a situation that will get worse before it gets better — assuming it gets better. Staff members have already lost their jobs, and this fall more employees will be called in to receive career- and life-changing news — this time, faculty included.

Daily I’m confronted with the maddening contrast between Bethel as I experience it in the classroom, in conversations with alumni, in relationships with colleagues, and in my ongoing research on Pietism and higher education and Bethel as we hear of it from administrators conveying worrisome enrollment and financial news.

Drought in Texas, 1955
Licensed by Creative Commons (Justin Cozart)

So I’ve come back repeatedly to these verses from the prophet Jeremiah, part of our liturgy earlier in September:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer 17:7-8, NRSV)

Now, Jeremiah’s not normally who I turn to for cheering up. And, true to form, the preceding verses of the oracle aren’t good news for those “who trust in mere mortals,” and coming after v 8 is this description of the human heart: “…devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?”

But ever since hearing vv 7-8 again, I’ve been meditating on the image of the tree that “is not anxious” (man, do I need to keep hearing that) and bears fruit even “in the year of drought.” Yesterday was fruitful indeed.

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