A Dynamic View of Following Jesus
As teenagers at Fifty-Ninth Street church in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who had made a commitment to following Jesus, we used to flock to Saturday night church rallies, particularly attracted to announced sermon topics like “How to Find the Will of God for Your Life.” An underlying assumption behind such sermons seemed to be that there was a static blueprint for each of our lives, and we needed all the help we could get to discern what that blueprint was as soon as possible, before we make irrevocable blunders.
I now believe that the idea of there being a blueprint for working out my aspiration to follow Jesus does not bear up under biblical scrutiny. For example, Isaiah 58:10-11 reads, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then … the Lord will guide you continually.” This passage suggests that it is in the very process of helping others that you gain greater discernment as to how to continue helping others.
This suggests a dynamism in my attempts to follow Jesus. At any given time, I decide on a course of action that reflects my present understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. The results that emerge from this course of action help me to refine my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This refined understanding, in turn, informs my decision as to a subsequent course of action. This cycle then continues for the rest of my life.
In popular parlance, it is as I have “walked with Jesus” that I have gained greater insight into how to continue walking with Jesus.
In what follows, I will report on how this dynamism for following Jesus has informed my Christian pilgrimage over the last 50 or so years; deeply informed by the following foundational beliefs:
- As a follower of Jesus, I am called to be an agent for God’s redemptive purposes; “partnering with God” by planting tiny seeds of redemption and entrusting the redemptive harvest to God (as taught in the Parable of the mustard seed recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32).
- I am now committed to an expansive view of God’s redemptive purposes that includes the salvation of individual persons that was the focus in my pietistic Lutheran upbringing, but more broadly calls for the redemption of all of Creation, as promoted in the Reformed Christian tradition.
In particular, I now embrace the following eight foundational Christian values: positive relationships with God; physical life and health; loving relationships between persons; truth about all aspects of God’s Creation; justice, especially on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed among us; peace and reconciliation between persons and groups in conflict; flourishing of the natural environment; fostering the human creation of beauty.
- The biblical teaching about the nature of the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12) is that each Christian should be fostering those Christian values that best fits with his/her gifts. That is my aspiration, recognizing that my exercising my particular gifts generally comports with what I love to do.
FROM AEROSPACE SCIENCE TO TEACHING MATHEMATICS
As a high school student, my view of God’s redemptive purposes was still narrowly limited to saving individual people. As a result, my thinking as to a possible vocational choice was not informed by deep thinking as to how I could partner with God toward fostering the realization of a broader spectrum of Christian values.
Rather, I discovered in high school that I excelled at and enjoyed my studies in mathematics and physics, which suggested a possible career in engineering; which was reinforced by the fact that such a career would be seen as a “step upward” for the son of immigrants from Norway who never studied beyong high school.
Having proceeded from an undergraduate major in mechanical engineering through a doctorate in aerospace science, while making a modest contribution along the way to obtaining the knowledge needed to send men to the moon while working for Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, California, it was only in retrospect that I thought about how my work as an aerospace scientist might be contributing to the realization of some of God’s redemptive purposes.
I now see that space exploration made valuable contributions to our grasp of the truth regarding God’s physical Creation, and to the development of various technologies that contribute to the physical well-being of humans, such as cat-scans and other medical procedures.
Therefore, it would have been reasonable for me to spend my career working in the aerospace sciences doing tasks that I enjoyed doing and that were contributing to the realization of some of God’s intended redemptive purposes. But two factors intervened that caused me to make a major vocational shift in vocation at the tender age of 28.
The first factor was that I discovered that I had a gift for teaching. This discovery emerged when the faculty member for whom I served as a Teaching Assistant at Princeton, the late professor of electrical engineering Forman Acton, asked me to teach a session of one of his classes because he had to be away at a conference. With much fear and trembling, I prepared many hours for a one hour lecture. My lecture was very well received by the students. I discovered that I was really good at explaining complex ideas in terms that could be understood by undergraduate students. And I discovered that I loved teaching, which went beyond just enjoying my past work as an aerospace scientist.
The context for the second factor is that I made a special commitment to the Christian value of “truth about all aspects of God’s creation” because of my lifelong love of learning. I pursued that love in two compartmentalized worlds of knowledge: the world of knowledge in the various academic disciplines, and the world of knowledge captured by my biblical and theological understanding.
But a significant problem was that my two worlds of knowledge never intersected. I had not formulated any “connections” between these two worlds. I had become an entrenched intellectual dualist. All my formal studies in engineering and aerospace science made no connnections with my biblical and theological understanding. And, if I had decided to focus my formal studies at a prestigious Bible institute, little, if any attempt would have been made to connect my emerging biblical and theological understanding with knowledge in any of the academic disciplines.
In brief, I arrived at the conviction that if I wanted to make connections between my two truncated worlds of knowledge, I would have to do so at a Christian liberal arts college that proclaimed loud and clear that the most fundamental distinctive of a wholistic understanding of education is the “integration of knowledge” that focuses on seeking connections between my two truncated worlds of knowledge, thereby potentally making the strongest possible contribution to the realization of the Christian value of “truth about all aspects of God’s Creation.”
And so, prompted by these two factors, I left the aerospace industry in my late 20s and took a job teaching mathematics at a small Christian liberal arts college, The King’s College (TKC) in Briarcliff Manor New York.
In summary, it was during the process of seeking for truth in my compartmentalized two worlds of knowledge that I gained the insight that the next step for me in my attempt to follow Jesus was to improve on my quest for truth by making connections beween these two compartments. I was able to make significant strides in this direction during my twelve years teaching math at TKC.
FROM TEACHING MATHEMATICS TO ACADEMIC ADMINISTRATION
I loved my classroom teaching of math during my stay at TKC, and my student and peer evaluations revealed that I became very good at it. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I didn’t love the grading that came with the job, which I often did long into the night (I half-jokingly told some friends that I taught in the classroom for nothing; they paid me to grade).
But the aspect of my experience at TKC that had the most lasting impact on me, to this very day, was the opportunity I had to seek connections between my teaching discipline of mathematics and my biblical and theological understanding.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to do that alone. I was one of a cohort of young faculty members at TKC who were pursuing such “integration of knowledge” in their respective academic disciplines. I have many fond memories of us “comparing notes” during the free lunches that TKC provided for its faculty (one of the best fringe benefits I ever had). I was particularly helped by the insights provided by my primary intellectual mentor David Wolfe, who taught philosophy, and John Carter, who taught psychology.
In 1987, I published a progress report on the results of my integrative quest, in an essay titled “Mathematics: Freedom Within Bounds” that appeared in a book that David Wolfe and I co-edited titled The Reality of Christian Learning: Strategies for Faith-Discipline, in which I argued that the concept of exercising “freedom within boundaries” was applicable to doing mathematics in a manner similar to formulating a Christian ethic to live by. The Christian ethic that I formulated consisted of my foundational Christian values and strategies for promoting the realization of those values and avoiding actions that are destructive of those values.
It was during my stay at TKC that the seeds were first planted for my eventually formulating my view that the essence of Christian liberal arts education can be captured by just three words: Conversations seeking truth (But I am now getting ahead of my story).
I left TKC in the summer of 1975 to teach math at Gordon College for five years, re-joining David Wolfe, who had left TKC a few years before me to teach at his alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois before coming to Gordon.
An unusual thing then happened in the Spring of 1980. Malcolm Reid, anther philosophy professor at Gordon had been offered the job of Vice President for Academic Affairs at Northwestern College (NWC) in Orange City, Iowa, which he turned down. But Malcolm recommended me as an alternative. I interviewed for the job.
My story of why I made this radical job change will now illustrate once again the way in which it is as we follow Jesus that we gain greater insight as to how to continue to follow Jesus.
In my interview for the VPAA position at NWC, I shared my integrative vision for seeking connections between the academic disciplines and biblical and theological studies. That mostly elicited blank stares. That task, which I believed was the fundamental distinctive of Christian liberal arts education, was foreign to how most NWC faculty viewed their role.
On the flight home from Sioux City to Boston, a wild idea occurred to me. It would be great if I could build on my twelve year quest at TKC to uncover connections between my disciplne of mathematics and my biblical and theological understanding by inspiring a whole faculty to begin doing such “integration of knowledge” work relative to their respective academic disciplines. I decided then that if I was offered the VPAA position, I would accept it, with that primary goal in mind. I was offered the position and I accepted it, beginning my new adminidtrative responsibilities in the Fall of 1980.
Had I lost my mind? I loved teaching mathematics, for which I had the requisite gifts, and now I was going to leave that vocation for a new set of responsibilities that I wasn’t sure I had the gifts to carry out well.
But I had carried out a number of quasi-administrative responsibilities while at TKC that went well, such as chairing a number of key faculty committees, providing leadership for major curricular reform, and authoring two self-study reports that led to TKC receiving its initial accreditation with the Middle States Association. But to do administrative work full time had the potential to exemplify the Peter Principle: being promoted to my level of incompetency.
My first week as VPAA at Northwestern College was miserable. I was literally in tears as I drove to work one morning. I didn’t know where to start. So for about a week I just read the material in the many folders that my predecessor had left me (uff da!). But then a thought occurred to me that set the stage for the rest of my tenure at Northwestern and the rest of my life. I will have a face-to-face conversation with each of my faculty members, being careful first to listen well. So I arranged to have a conversation with each faculty member, about 50 to 60 in number, as I recall, in their offices. I asked each of them to be prepared to respond to the following two questions: What is your vision for your own growth as a teacher and scholar into the near future? What is your vision for the future of Northwestern College? These conversations were delightful and led to two marvelous results. First, I gained valuable insights into how I could begin shaping the future of Northwestern College to fit both my vision and the dreams of my faculty. Secondly, and even more importantly, I began developing relationships of mutual understanding and trust that would enable me to collaborate with faculty members toward making our respective visions come true.
That was the first step in the emergence of my collaborative leadership style—a step built on the primacy of building thriving personal relationships by first listening well.
I later discovered that I was intuitively developing a collaborative leadership style that had been proposed by Parker Palmer, a Quaker sociologist. In the following extended quote from his book The Active Life, Palmer points us to the only approach to leadership that fosters community between persons, citing Jesus as our example.
Jesus exercises the only kind of leadership that can evoke authentic community—a leadership that risks failure (and even crucifixion) by making space for other people to act. When a leader takes up all the space and preempts all the action, he or she may make something happen, but the something is not community. Nor is it abundance, because the leader is only one person, and one person’s resources invariably run out. But when a leader is willing to trust the abundance that people have and can generate together, willing to take the risk of inviting people to share from that abundance, then and only then may true community emerge.
In my own words, Parker was teaching us two truths about leadership. First, when a leader exercises a command-and-control style of leadership, the result will be only as good as the leader’s giftedness. But when the leader dares to collaborate with followers, there is potential for the result to reflect the combined giftedness of the leader and followers. Secondly, when the leader effectively collaborates with followers, it builds a strong sense of community, a sense of interdependence where we are all working together. I practiced this collaborative leadership style during my eight years as VPAA and then for five years as VPAA at Messiah College near Harrisburg, PA. But, alas, this led to my being “fired” at Messiah by a president whose command-and-control leadership style couldn’t provide me with the space I needed to be a collaborative leader. For the gory details of this experience, I refer you to the section titled “When the Roof Fell in” in my book Let’s Talk (pp. 52-53). But, at the end of this painful episode, I had a joyful experience that deeply informed the subsequent two stages in my pilgrimage. When my employment was terminated, I was never provided with the opportunity to “tell my side of the story.” But my pain from having been silenced was significantly alleviated a month or two after my firing when a board member showed up unannounced at the door of my home. I didn’t know him well and he wasn’t on the executive committee of the board (which I had been led to believe made the final decision to terminate my employment). After I welcomed him into my home, he simply said: “Harold, I want to hear your side of the story.”
These few words were a marvelous gift. Finally, a person in authority with a commitment to listening invited me to share my pain. I cannot find words to adequately express the joy this kind gesture brought to me. Although it did not change the outcome, a sense of peace washed over me—like coming across an oasis during a desert journey.
Finally, someone wanted to listen to me. As he left my home that sunny morning, I felt not only listened to, but also loved. That splendid gift has been the single greatest influence on how I have attempted be an agent for God’s redemptive purposes for the 26 years that have followed. Stated most succinctly: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.Stated positively: To give someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.
FROM ACADEMIC ADMINISTRATION TO DIRECTING A FACULTY CENTER FOR RESEARCH
Since I was fired from my VPAA position at Messiah College in August of 1993, after I had signed a contract for the 1993–94 academic year, the college was obligated to pay me for that year (what some of my faculty friends at Messiah jokingly called the “Harold Heie sabbatical year”).
This afforded me time to explore various possibilities for future employment, including applying for presidency positions at three CCCU schools. I made it to the final four at all three colleges, but during the course of my interviews, it became apparent that these colleges were looking primarily for a fundraiser and public relations type, so my enthusiastic assertion that as president I would focus on strengthening the college’s commitment to the “integration of knowledge” seemed to fall on deaf ears, eliciting more blank stares. I received no offers to assume a college presidency. In retrospect, if I had received and accepted such an offer, it would surely have led to a whopping exemplification of being promoted to my level of incompetency (the Peter Principle).
In the Spring of 1994, with an offer in hand for a VPAA position at a Christian college in Colorado, I received a phone call from my good friend of many years, Stan Gaede, then Provost at Gordon College, where Stan and I had been teaching colleagues in the late 1970s. Stan had a dream for Gordon that was among the approved initiatives of a long-range plan, and he was looking for someone to help him shape and implement that dream. His exact words were: “Harold, Gordon just approved a long-range plan that calls for the establishment of a center to promote ‘Christian thought and action.’ Would you be interested in serving as the founding director of that center?”
Would I be interested? Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear relieve himself in the woods? Another instance of the dynamism of my attempts to be a faithful follower of Jesus was emerging. During my VPAA stints at Northwestern College and Messiah College, I had come to embrace the importance of enabling faculty to be productive scholars as an essential part of being effective teachers. Since the Gordon board mandate was so succinct, I would have the opportunity to flesh it out, in conversation with Stan, in ways that would enable Gordon faculty to do more scholarly work.
Furthermore, I could shape the programming of this new center in ways that built on the collaborative vision for leadership that had emerged in my VPAA stints, with increased emphasis on the importance of a leader listening well to his or her followers.
A catch was that Gordon didn’t have the resources to adequately fund this new center—they had just enough for a modest operating budget and a half-time salary. I would have to raise external funds from foundations and private philanthropists to pay for the other half of my salary, a salary for an administrative assistant, and the costs for all the center’s programming initiatives. It was the best job offer I have ever received.
Stan and I enthusiastically collaborated in shaping this new center, which we called the Center for Christian Studies (now, 25 years later, it has been renamed the Center for Faith & Inquiry). To explore potential programming, I repeated the listening tour that I first used when I became VPAA at Northwestern. I invited any interested Gordon faculty member to sit down with me over coffee or lunch to tell me about their dreams for future scholarly work. I then fleshed out their aspirations in the form of grant proposals, which typically included collaboration between the Gordon faculty member and Christian scholars elsewhere who shared the same research interest.
Because the research interests of Gordon faculty were quite varied, the topics for which I was able to garner external funding (about $3 million total) during my tenure at the CCS (1994–2003) were all over the map, including global stewardship, Christian apologetics, civic education, Christian virtues in a pluralistic society and evangelical hermeneutics. The culmination for each research project was to bring the team of participating Christian scholars to the Gordon campus to listen to and discuss each other’s reports on their respective scholarly contributions to the overall project. These positive experiences further reinforced my perception of my giftedness that had been evolving over many years: I am best at helping others to do their best.
In addition to these CCS research projects based on the interest of individual Gordon faculty members, the CCS also hosted a number of public forums that brought together, for listening and conversation, scholars and practitioners who had strong disagreements about contentious hot-button issues. These included a colloquium at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston around the theme “International Public Policy”; an interfaith dialogue, co-hosted with the American Jewish Committee that brought together Jewish and Christian scholars and public leaders to discuss “The Role of Religion in Politics and Society”; and a seminar series in which Protestant and Catholic laypersons discussed the theme “Unity, Not Uniformity.”
I served as the Director of the Center for Christian Studies through the academic year 2002-03, when I retired, sort of. Pat and I moved back to Orange city, Iowa, where we had lived from 1980-88 and had grown to love the people, the slower pace of life, but not the winters (you can’t have everything!). This brought us closer to our oldest son Jonathan and his family, albeit quite a distance from Janice, a single mom, who lived in Aspen Colorado with her son John Thomas (JT) and our youngest son Jeff, who lived with his family in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
In ways I could not have imagined my retirement years have provided me with new opportunities to plant tiny seeds of redemption that provided the greatest exemplification of the dynamism of my attempts to be a faithful follower of Jesus in that I was able to take initiatives that built on the lessons learned during my work before retirement, even dating back to my boyhood days in Brooklyn.
FROM A FACULTY CENTER FOR RESEARCH TO MY RESPECTFUL CONVERSATION PROJECT
There is one word that captures a thread that has emerged a number of times in the above story: conversation. Before I recapitulate this pattern, I will share how my commitment to the importance of conversation can be traced all the way back to my boyhood home in Brooklyn. Our home in Brooklyn was a welcoming space for the “girls.” That is what Mom called her unmarried lady friends, who, like Mom, had emigrated from Norway in the 1920s and taken positions as maids and cooks in fine homes in New York City and Long Island. Aagot, Elisabeth, Sophie, Johanna and others flocked to our home on weekends for good food and good conversation, staples in the lives of Norwegians in Brooklyn. They were a lively group, some having strong opinions on most everything, including whether the pot roast was done well enough. I sensed they didn’t have much opportunity to give voice to their points of view during the working week, possibly due to their perceived subordinate stations in life and their occasional struggles with the English language. In our home, these women were given a safe and welcoming space to say whatever was on their minds, sometimes half in Norwegian and half in English. And even at those times when Mom’s views, possibly on the pot roast, were the subject of criticism, Mom smiled, listened patiently, and gave a gentle response. Pop mostly listened, as did my twin brother, John, and I. Mom, Pop, and the girls are no longer with us. But, in ways I have come to realize only fully recently, these good experiences of a safe and welcoming space for all of us around the table had a profound formative influence on me. I never thought much about it at the time because it was just the way things were in our home, like the air we breathed. As the above story reveals my evolving sense of how to give expression to this early commitment to the importance of conversation as a way to follow Jesus took many forms, with this evolution illustrating the main point of this essay: It is as we follow Jesus that we gain greater insight into how to continue following Jesus. The discerning reader will already have noticed the following: ·
- During my free lunches at The King’s College, my faculty colleagues and I had marvelous conversations talking about the results of our shared commitment to uncover connections between the knowledge in our respective academic disciplines and our biblical and theological understandings. These were the seeds first planted in my eventually formulating my view that the essence of Christian arts education can be captured in just three words: Conversations seeking truth. ·
- As I struggled with figuring out how I, as an academic administrator (VPAA), should provide collaborative leadership for the faculty I was supervising, I met one-on-one with all my faculty at Northwestern College in Iowa; listening well to their dreams for the college and their scholarly work and talking about how we their dreams and my dreams could merge. These splendid conversations led to developing caring personal relations of mutual understanding and trust that led to many good collaborative results.
- A few months after my VPAA employment at Messiah College was terminated, I received the special gift of a trustee at the college showing up at my house, saying he wanted to ‘hear my side of the story.” This taught me an invaluable lesson; You don’t love someone who you have silenced. This led me to embrace the truth that to give someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about that disagreement is a deep expression of love.
- My work directing the Center for Christian studies at Gordon College focused on orchestrating conversations between scholars who shared common research interests and conversations between scholars and practitioners who had strong disagreements about contentious hot-button issues, like “the Role of Religion in Politics and Society.
My commitment to orchestrating conversations that demonstrate respect and love between persons who disagree now seems quaint and impossible to attain in the light of the rampant tribalism that pervades public discourse in America; an us-versus-them mentality where “me and my folks” (e.g., my church, my political party, my circle of friends) possess all the truth about the issue at hand, and “those other folks” possess none of the truth. Not only are they “all wrong”: they are evil and should be demeaned and demonized. What can be done to ameliorate this brokenness in public discourse? In 2011, I decided that I needed to model a better way, a “Christian way” to talk to one another about strong disagreements, based on the primacy of the Christian virtue of “love” (A universal human virtue). So, for more than a decade now, I have been planting tiny seeds of redemption by orchestrating loving and respectful conversations about some contentious issues on my website www.respectfulconversation.net; issues such as same-sex marriage, political affiliation, and the Trump presidency. As I report in the concluding chapters (7& 8) of my Let’s Talk book, my attempts have led to some successes and some enormous failures (the beautiful and the ugly). I conclude my book with some concrete, practical recommendations for orchestrating respectful conversations within churches.
In a nutshell, in order to avoid an “echo chamber” effect, the venues I propose for such respectful conversations are small group face-to-face meetings having a “balanced” set of conversation partners in which everyone will carefully listen to the perspectives of others, digging down deep to uncover the “reasons” given for each perspective, which will invariably reflect the social location and personal biography of each participant. It is only at this “deep level” that there is hope for forging some consensus as to a broader “truth” about the matter being discussed that incorporates the “partial truths” proposed by each conversation partner.
There are two-preconditons that must be agreed to up-front by all who are invited to join such conversations. The first is that all conversation partners must agree on the purpose of the conversation.
The purpose is NOT to win an argument. Such an unworkable purpose will only serve to reinforce the rampant tribalistic us-versus-them mentality that thrives on peddling fear and demeaning and demonizing those who disagree with you.
Rather, all conversation partnewrs must agree to the following statement of purpose for the conversation: To understand the positions taken by all conversation partners and the reasons given for holding those positions toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.
The second pre-condition is that all conversation partners must agree up-front to abide by the following set of “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation” that are expressions of the love for others to which Jesus calls all those who aspire to be his followers:
- I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand.
- I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
- I will express my perspective and my reasons for holding that perspective with clarity and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
- In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground by critically examining my own view in light of her contrary view and the reasons she has for her view.
- Guided by the underlying values of humility, courage, patience and love, when we cannot find common ground, I will always engage the person who disagrees with me in a way that demonstrates respect and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
It is only through the eyes of faith that I can envision God bringing about a rich redemptive harvest from the tiny seeds of redemption that have been gifted to me.
The above story about how my attempts to follow Jesus have exemplified a dynamism, wherein at each major step of my Christian pilgrimage I have sought to discern how the next step could be informed by lessons learned in previous steps, has been abstracted out from lengthier narratives that I present in my most recent book Let’s Talk. Interested readers may want to take a peek at that book.
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