Earthen Vessels

[Faculty Chapel – August 15, 2013]

IMG_6672I’m sure you are aware that asking an introspective person to deliver a few minutes of reflection is like asking a shopper at the Mall of America to limit themselves to the Sunglasses Hut….

I will do my best to stick to the hut.

As I was reflecting on this reflection, I pondered the many angles from which I might “self-reveal.” That’s always a thrill for introverted types.

But I decided to forego the narrative approach in favor of something I hope is equally relevant. So I won’t be sculpting images from the marble of my life experience as a Navy kid who grew up in an isolationist, end-times sect in the lowlands of southeastern Virginia. And I’ll leave untouched my time in the wastelands of ministerial endeavor both in the U.S. and abroad—a sojourn that left my wife Leslie and me all but shipwrecked on a nether backwater of the American Dreamscape. If you want those riveting stories, feel free to take me to lunch sometime.

Instead I want to talk about Lee University—Lee College when I came in 1995. The year holds quite a bit of nostalgia for me, and not just because our only begotten son Nicholas was born just after May graduation of that first year. The fact is, I’m still in touch with many of the members of my first class of graduating seniors. They’re all now lawyers, pharmacists, pastors, homemakers, small business owners and teachers, even college professors. A few of them have children that have graduated high school, so, yes, I have passed that milestone, thank you very much.

2 Corinthians 4:7, says, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” Forgive the archaic use of the King James. In this case, the old KJV flows off the tongue better than other translations. We are “earthen vessels,” a better term in my view than “jars of clay.” It’s just that the word “jar” makes me think of “jarring,” or “Mason jars” or Jar Jar Binks. The image I get of a jar of clay is of a finished product sitting on a dusty shelf. “Earthen vessel” on the other hand seems to evoke all at once the materials of creation, the creative act itself and a highly useful created product.

I think the earthen vessel image serves as a great metaphor for my nearly two decades of experience at Lee University. While none of us is a finished product, certainly the thousands of young people with whom we come into contact every semester are maybe a little less “finished” and are in the business of molding and reshaping their lives to become better vessels. That much is obvious.

IMG_5275It’s the “earthen” part that I want to dwell on here, or what we might refer to as the “mundane” if we want to Latinize the word. It’s exactly the mundane – those daily activities that rarely rise to the level of other people’s notice – that have made working here at Lee University so very different … and such a rewarding experience.

I’ll never forget in my first year when I was a freshman sponsor of the yearbook. I remember wedging my way into Donna Summerlin’s car on top of a few hundred yearbooks that she and I had laboriously stuffed into mailer envelopes. We hauled them over to the post office and tossed them into the uncomplaining and seemingly insatiable mail slot. And then we ran back to campus and filled the car again—and again.

Then there was the time we moved the yearbook office to 4th Floor Walker–a step ahead of the bulldozers elsewhere on campus–and Joel Kailing and I, with a long chain of happy student volunteers, hauled several dozen heavy boxes full of yearbooks from the box truck in the front circle parking lot, around the back of Walker, all the way up the fire escape, through the corridors and into the offices. And as we finished, somewhat worse for wear, Joel Kailing said to me, “This isn’t the sort of thing that shows up on your PAR.”

Obviously some of these stories are a bit richer in the telling than in the actual experiences, such as the one where, after staying up until 2 am on a Sunday night to get the Collegian finished by deadline, I had to run back to campus at 6 am the next Wednesday to pull all the papers from all the stands on campus and destroy them because somehow a student comment had snuck into the copy declaring that the best thing that could happen to then president Clinton was for him to be assassinated. (We didn’t want a visit from the Secret Service).

Admittedly some of these experiences are a little less mundane than others. I have ridden with students on trains, planes, automobiles, trolleys, trams, buggies, ferries, ships, canoes and jungle rafts to take them to places where they could engage a broad spectrum of cities, cultures, histories, service opportunities, scholarship, conversations … even the occasional drive-in movie.  With them I have run pell-mell through torrential rains at 18,000 feet among the llamas of the Andes and been equally soaked to the skin among the black cabs of Oxford, England. Here on campus and abroad I have heard their hopes, their dreams, their passions, their disappointments, their fears, their glorious discoveries, their hard-won triumphs, and yes, their failures and defeats. I’ve been to their graduations, of course, but also to their birthday parties, weddings and other celebrations. I’ve been to a few funerals….

Earthen vessels, shaped by their time here, with us and among us.

IMG_0614And the truly amazing thing for me is that with each little piece of earth that I have had any part in spackling into their lives, I find that I have been molded as well. And for a person whose relational strengths are, according to Gallup anyway, at the bottom of the scale, I treasure these connections more than I can express.

But this picture would be terribly incomplete without expanding on the contribution of my colleagues, a couple of whom I’ve already mentioned. Whether it’s a conversation about students with Cliff Schimmels in the baseball bleachers or a random chat with Charles Beach in a forgotten upper corner of the Walker Building, I’ve had a chance to connect in a personal way with the genuine heart of Lee University, that element the students always rave about when they take the NSSE survey: a faculty and staff that has always ardently bought into the mission of this place, that cares about the well being of the people with whom they serve and that rarely thinks of what they do here as simply a job.

With these colleagues I’ve had remarkable experiences, experiences of a nature I can’t imagine I could have had any other place. I’ve dodged teargas and trigger-happy cattle farmers in Ecuador alongside José Minay. I’ve engaged filmmakers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution with Xiaoxing Yu in Beijing. I’ve enjoyed the recitations of Lear, Hamlet and Caesar’s ghost in Montgomery, Alabama with Susan Rogers. I’ve swapped family stories with Evaline Echols on a long car ride in Nowhere Special, Tennessee. I’ve done a lap around the Circus Maximus in Rome with Randy Wood and I’ve made peace between screaming guides in Bruges, Belgium alongside John Simmons. I’ve gotten lost in a boggy forest outside of Cambridge, England with Eric Moyen. I’ve searched for catfish po’boys in New Orleans with Jayson Van Hook. I’ve escaped Alcatraz with Ron Gilbert and Jeff Salyer. And at the front desk of a hotel in Mexico City I discovered to my dismay along with Jason Ward that our considerable combined Spanish language vocabularies did not include the words for “clogged toilet.”

These are just the highlights.

I know this all sounds as though I’ve been lying about being an introvert. Maybe I’m just a shy social butterfly after all. But these experiences—even the Mexican stand off—I wouldn’t trade for anything. To you, today, all I can give is the lightest touch of things that carry with them stories that are far richer in detail. Each story has become another piece of me as I’ve been fashioned in this place by … well, by you people. And each piece reflects the extraordinary nature of what it means to be entrusted with the equally extraordinary task we have here.

Now I don’t want to unduly romanticize things. None of us is strictly the amalgamation of the events in our lives. Nor are we exclusively the product of our choices. We have a thing for cause and effect in the construction of our narratives, but life tends to be a little messier. We are each a jumble of convictions and contradictions, which is what makes us more earthen than something more refined, “…that the excellency may be of God and not of us.” In putting this reflection together, I realized with gratitude that I owe my students and my friends here an enormous debt that I can only ever begin to repay.

IMG_2577I’m glad that I came to Lee at a time when conventional boundaries between sectors and populations were a lot less formal and maybe less intimidating. I think that’s part of what has made it possible for me to squeeze so much from my time here. I would encourage everyone this year to dare to leap across some of the formal disciplinary divides between us. See what you can find on the other side. You might be surprised.

You might even be changed.

Earthen vessels. Let’s be careful with these fragile things. But let’s have fun being a part of this amazing creative process.

Thanks and have a great year.

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5 thoughts on “Earthen Vessels

      1. alltheseblessedthings

        Really? Is that because of nostalgia or just the assignment itself (presenting in faculty chapel)? Excellently crafted, as always; the effort doesn’t reveal itself.

      2. meldenius

        Because of the assignment: Reflect in ten minutes to the assembled faculty and administration of the university, blending elements from the past 30 years that really can’t be captured in that amount of time. I went through four bad drafts before I settled on this one.

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