Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
December 22, 2014
In early October, 2010, Kelsey and Madison, two students I had taught in a UFDN 1000 the previous spring, stopped by my office to pick up their final exams. I invited them to chat for a few minutes and asked how their summers had gone. They told me about their jobs and family activities, and when they finished, I asked them, “And how is it with your souls?” I love that old Methodist question, and I only wish that I had been wise enough to use it more often with my parishioners when I was a country preacher, and actually had a right to know the answer. But, for better or worse, nosiness is my spiritual gift, and I have found that most college students appreciate my nosiness, apparently presuming from the cheerful and vacant look in my eyes that I am harmless and maybe even genuinely interested in them—as I certainly hope I am. So Kelsey and Madison told me how it was with their souls—their joys and struggles, their hopes and plans, their spiritual trials and moral faults, their renewed efforts to pray.
After they said their peace, Madison looked me in the eye and asked, “And how is it with your soul, Dr. Steele.” I was a bit taken aback, but also deeply touched. No student had ever had the courage or the courtesy to ask that before. So I told them. I said that, in general, it was well with my soul, that I had a productive summer, and that my colleague Rob Wall and I had recently turned in the manuscript of a book we wrote on the Pastoral Epistles. I told them, this was a big deal for me, partly because this book has been in the works for a long time, and partly because I don’t write as many books and articles as I thought that I would write – twenty years ago, when I was a newly minted PhD. “My life took a direction different from what I intended,” I told them. “I do more counseling with students and academic administration, and less research and writing. And although I’m glad to do whatever is asked of me, I sometimes feel spasms of shame when my learned colleagues show off their learned tomes.” They were quiet for a moment. Then Kelsey said, “But Dr. Steele, we are your tomes.
I was completely unglued. It is both profoundly healing and profoundly humbling for us teachers to think that our students (or at least to some of them) believe that some of the good in their lives is a product of our labors.We, of course, are in no position to claim them as the “products” of our labors. But they are in a position to claim this for themselves. Admittedly, the mores governing university life usually prevent students from telling us this in so many words. But it is an incomparable blessing when they can and do tell us.
St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:1-3). The legitimacy of his apostolic work with them is displayed by the fact that their lives have been transformed by his gospel. In that sense, they are his tomes. True, there is a certain asymmetry here. As an apostle, Paul has the right to tell the Corinthians that they are his tomes, whereas we, being only theologians, lack the authority to assert to our students, or about them, that they are our tomes. Yet we can give thanks when they assert to us, or to others, that our work with them has changed their lives for the better.
Let me close by reading a poem written by one of our former students, Hillary Prag, which hangs on my wall. It is titled, “To My Professors.”
Blessed are your hallways that are home to the smell
of one thousand unanswered questions
and a microwave lunch.
You who have the rhythm of all my songs, and yours,
who sprinkle sugary dust on my hands while I write
and hijack trucks to drive over my complacency,
then turn yourselves to smoking and drinking around old fires.
You who keep illumination on tap and offer me samples in small cups.
You are wizards who close your eyes to think about what I just said
and when you read this poem you’ll lean forward in your chair and
circle ‘chair’ for some reason.
You dismantle the dark with a thought and a bookmark
traveling in and out of foggy rooms with a pleasant tone of voice.
When the light through your window spells words on the walls,
I’ll find you humming and taking notes on things you can’t explain
then stand still, as you pour a bucket of recently opened butterflies
over my head.
Thanks be to God for our tomes—both the printed ones, and the im-printed ones!