And just like that we come to the end of another calendar year. Here are some snapshots, highlights, and reflections from the year of teaching, scholarship, ministry, and family life.
Teaching at Dordt
I taught five courses this year: Biblical Foundations, Aesthetics, Ethics, Leadership & Discipleship, and Christianity & Popular Culture. While Biblical Foundations is usually made up of freshmen, the rest of my courses are mostly seniors. Although I enjoy the challenge of teaching freshmen, I am always amazed by the ways they have matured as thinkers, writers, and humans by the time they approach graduation. Sometimes it is quite astounding.
I often worry that my students are being trained to treat their courses as mere transactions, trading a specified amount of money, time, and attention for information, assessment, and certification. But if we can resist turning everything into a transaction, the educational experience becomes less contractual and more covenantal, a matter of trust, connection, and care.
This was reinforced to me recently in one of my courses: during an end-of-semester quiz, I gave students the opportunity to share feedback about how the course could be improved (I told them that any response would receive full credit). The students offered thoughtful feedback about what worked and what didn’t, which assignments and readings they enjoyed and which parts of the course felt rushed. But what I was not expecting was the conspiracy of kindness in which these students offered unsolicited words of blessing and encouragement. Power differential notwithstanding, what a gift to have students who recognize that teaching can be a vulnerable exercise, too.
Institutionally, I finished my first full year as the theology department chair; I served on the CORE committee, the diversity council, and the editorial board for In All Things. I am thankful to be a part of a relatively healthy institution, surrounded by colleagues who care deeply about our students & the mission of the institution, and who are just generally wonderful to be around.
Writing & Speaking
The big milestone here is the publication of my second book, Interpreting Your World: Five Lenses for Engaging Theology and Culture. When I came to Dordt almost six years ago, I didn’t plan to write books. But as I have discerned and leaned into this calling, I have been surprised by the insecurity of having books out in the world. I thought the hardest thing would be encountering criticism; but in reality the hardest thing has been fighting my wounded pride, resisting the insidious voice that says that no one sees and no one cares about my work. As many great things have come into my life because of my books, on the whole my writing life has felt like constant training in humility – being confronted with my insecurities, my tendencies to focus on the wrong things, to throw pity parties, and then having to ask what is going on in my heart. This is also something I did not expect.
In the meantime, the In All Things podcast continues to be a source of inspiration and joy; we released 16 episodes this year. One highlight was interviewing my doktorvater (doctoral supervisor) Bill Dyrness; another highlight was an in-person interview with Esau McCaulley in front of a live audience. You can check out the episodes below. More planned for January!
I also did a bit of article writing this year, for In All Things (6), Christianity Today (3), and The Banner (2). More to come from all three next year!
I had a full year of speaking, giving 30 total talks. This included 15 sermons at local congregations, 8 event sermons, 6 conference talks, and 1 online webinar. I also enjoyed being a ecclesial fellow for the Center for Pastor Theologians and a board member for the Center for Public Justice. My travels took me to Arizona, Michigan, California, Texas, Florida, Washington & Washington D.C., North Carolina, Canada, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a person who lives in a more rural location, it’s a blessing to be able to travel to cities – but also to come home to a slower pace of life.
To tell the story of our family life in 2022 is to tell the story of stress-testing and of Stella. Let me start with the stress. About a year ago, we found ourselves at the Mayo Clinic for a surgical procedure for my (then eleven-year-old) daughter, Sophia. It was her second major surgery related to a medical condition she’s had since birth, one that while not life-threatening, has been profoundly life-limiting (she has a thick file of specialists we’ve consulted and treatments we’ve tried). The surgery at Mayo went well, and we checked out of the hospital on Christmas Eve and drove home.
But the road to recovery was disorienting: unexpectedly long, requiring uncomfortable and invasive at-home care, and there were several setbacks, requiring additional surgical intervention. We bounced back and forth to the Mayo Clinic several more times in the first three months of the year (thankfully it is only a few hours from where we live).
I found myself in and around hospitals more than ever before. On one occasion, as Melissa and I sat in the waiting room during a third surgery that was entering its fifth hour, a feeling of helplessness washed over me. It was one of those times where the illusion of invulnerability was stripped away and I was left looking for solid ground on which to stand. We were so thankful for our faith in Christ, for medical expertise, for the prayers & support of friends & family, and for understanding from our employers.
But the early months of the year were filled with tears, sleepless nights, canceled classes, and general exhaustion. I think we are still realizing the toll it took on us all, and are still recovering from it in many ways. But I am happy to report that Sophia (who was an absolute superhero) appears to be completely healed. (Alleluia and amen.) We took a trip to the US Virgin Islands to celebrate, and what a trip it was.
The second half of the year has been marked chiefly by an unexpected edition to our family, Stella, our mini golden doodle. I had been resisting my family’s pleas to get a dog for several years. I even made it through the pandemic puppy craze. But in August, some friends came to visit us and brought their dog Riley with them. Riley was only in our house for a few hours, but after watching my kids interacting with her, I said to my wife, “I think I could imagine us getting a dog.” By the weekend we had a puppy.
Since that out-of-character, impulsive decision, I have had many moments of regret. Stella has complicated our lives, adding a new layer of inconvenience for Melissa and me in the midst of regular travel. I never knew I could spend so much time staring at a dog’s rear end, begging her to “go potty” in the middle of night.
But Stella has also added so much joy to our lives, grounding us and humanizing us in important ways. The week that my book came out, as I went through the emotional ups and downs, I found that I was thinking about myself much less than usual. Why? Because I was thinking about Stella. What made my day was not “being noticed by all the right people,” but making it through the day without any accidents in the house. Caring for Stella wonderfully directed my attention away from myself. It slowed me down and made me more attentive to the natural world as she explored it. It gave our family a shared project to pursue together and a reason to take longer walks. It helped us to embrace our limitations, making us more human.
Having Stella has reminded me that loving any living thing points our hearts in the right direction. We were made by Love to live in love, to care for each other and the place we’ve been planted. Loving other things can help us learn to love and be loved by God.
In the face of all the games I play to prove that I belong, Stella offers a small testimony to what life is all about.
Advent blessings, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.