What do my students need from me? Obviously, they need knowledge. If our civilization is to live, then each generation will need to know, for example, why Plato was important, even if some things he said were crazy and opened doors to tyranny. Each generation will need to know why Shakespeare is great. Each generation will need to know why the Sermon on the Mount has been so influential. Students should know what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that people have a God-given right to pursue “happiness,” which has little to do with fun and amusement and a lot to do with hard work, perseverance and a virtuous life.
Like all people, students tend to take the good things for granted. But many such things—the kind of stuff, for instance, that makes mission trips possible—didn’t come about by accident. Electricity, rapid transportation, modern surgery, water purification systems, email and telephones all came into being in a certain civilization that prized certain ideas, among them the belief that when people are creative and busy doing things that make life better, they are reflecting the interests and image of a creative God.
And I think that students should be encouraged to see that inventiveness is most likely in contexts of trust. The New Testament’s moral teaching in favor of kindness, decency, integrity, truthfulness and perseverance in good works really is a guide to better lives and better societies. I want to challenge my students to see that when such virtues are not treasured, protected and promoted, then societies erode and with that erosion go opportunities to help people in other parts of the world. I happen to be writing these words in a hotel room in a Central American city riven by insecurity, distrust and crime. Life doesn’t have to be this way.
I want my students to know, or at least to have a chance to consider, such ideas. But I know that words go only so far. The casual cynicism that pervades American culture exists for a reason. Mr. Huxtable, the ideal pop culture dad, turns out (so myriad allegations claim) to be a predator. So my students need words, but they need words contextualized in a life that attempts to live up to certain ideals.
I ask myself: what do students need from me? One thing they need is a model of perseverance in good work, in work that, if allowed to run its course, can benefit individuals and society. In the classroom, this means the diligent pursuit of good thinking. It means that students should be able to see that classes are well-prepared, that the teacher isn’t using gimmicks to pass time. The teacher tries to model diligence, thoroughness and charitable efficiency. The teacher values all contributions but doesn’t allow clichés, catchphrases and buzzwords to stand in for thought.
And students need models of thoughtfulness, resistance to the Googlification of life. How much less interesting the Gospels would be if Jesus had given straightforward answers to everything—no roundabout responses, parables or rhetorical questions. Thoughtfulness isn’t intellectual game-playing or the nuancing of everything into oblivion—an approach that led Paul to critique teachers who are “ever learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy. 3:7). Like love, thoughtfulness is patient and kind but not forever open-ended. Its goal is knowledge, deep and wide.
Students need idealism informed by realism. How many teachers started out wanting to change the world only to find themselves years later on autopilot or worse? I ask my students how many ever had classes with teachers who obviously didn’t care. Most hands go up.
The longer one lives and the more one confronts life’s frustrations and problems, the harder idealism is. Indeed, this essay represents part of my own work against the ever-looming temptation to slip into autopilot, to stop caring because caring is harder than not caring. But I’m attracted to the conviction Paul expressed near the end of his life: he knew that he had run well his life course (2 Timothy 4:7). I doubt that such certainty will be mine, but I want to get as close as possible. So while I try to see the world as it is, and as I recognize that the kind of short-term thinking that lost Eden is repeated every day, I nevertheless want to push back—to use words about pushing back and, more importantly, actually to do so, with as much grace as possible, in daily life.
One way to push back against a cultural trend of ever easy, is to try to model perseverance in good and useful work. A way to push back against the habit of instant answers provided by search engines and political talkers is to try to model thoughtfulness. A way to push back against ill-founded idealism that crinkles into cynicism is to hold to true ideals while also facing the world as it is.
Paul spoke with certainty: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Notice the verbs: fighting, racing, keeping. Working for truly good things in the world that God has given us to manage for as long as we’re here.
Copyright © 2016 Preston Jones
Questions1. What is your initial response to this essay? What do you find attractive? What do you find challenging?
2. Jones identifies a number of dangers present in the world of advanced modernity in which we live—list them and define each carefully. What good thing does each threaten? To what extent do you find them encroaching on your own faithfulness in your vocation? Which danger is most dangerous for you? Why do you think that is?
3. Have you had a teacher that modeled the sort of life, thinking and integrity in their vocation that Jones describes? What impact did they have on you?
4. What ideals have you held that have slowly been leeched away by the hard reality of life in a broken world? What have you lost in the process? What practical things might allow us to keep our ideals while facing the realism of life as it is? What plans should you make?
5. The sort of faithfulness Jones outlines here is hard. Is that mistaken? Jesus statement, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30) does not contradict that but promises that the yoke/burden we are called to fits who we are, our gifts, and regardless of the difficulty is part of what flourishing means for us. Discuss.
6. In The Call (1998) Os Guinness says that “calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” To what extent does this describe you and your vocation?
7. Using this essay as a template, produce a version for your own life and vocation. Consider doing it with a group of friends—they need not be in the same line of work—so that you can pray for and support one another in the process.