Not There Yet...But on My Way
by David Holmes, Thursday evening keynote speaker
Ministering Evangelist for the Watts-Willowbrook Church of Christ and Professor of English, Writing, and Rhetoric at Pepperdine University
I never planned on teaching on the college level—especially not at Pepperdine. I grew up at the Normandie Church of Christ and, as a teen, attended several of the Pepperdine youth festivals held in November. My first teaching jobs were at the middle and high school level. I was still preaching during this time.
When I began teaching at Pepperdine in 1993 I loved it. Why? Teaching at Pepperdine made me uncomfortable. It still does. Not lumpy bed or dentist visit uncomfortable. Like an athlete I knew I would have to exercise my faith commitments in new and prickly ways. How would I teach multi-cultural literature, film, and rhetoric in ways that honored those perspectives without unintentionally demeaning my white students? How would I teach my first year and advanced writing students how to think critically about everything, including their faith, without discouraging them to the point of skepticism or, worse, nihilism? How would I bear witness to being an African American academic fully committed to both the Black Prophetic Tradition and my Church of Christ roots?
I don't have final answers to these questions. I've thought and taught about them for years but still no answers. Yet I'm a lot less depressed about my inability to answer tough questions at 54 than I was at 31, when I began teaching at Pepperdine. Color me melancholy but there is a note of hope in uncertainty. It's the music we hear at the front end of our midlife crisis. It's the heartfelt smile we manage when our blood pressure is up but our stock options are down. Hope is that faint whisper that reminds us that despite our broken hearts and battered dreams, we may have tomorrow.
Frankly, the weather-beaten hope of which I speak is perhaps a rose of another name. It's neither pie in the sky certainty nor confident expectation. This hope pushes, pulls, and stretches us to unearth bits and pieces of meaning in our jobs, family, faith, successes, and failures. Maybe I'm taking less about hope and more about a heightened, spiritual sense of acceptance of life as it comes.
My takeaway from Ecclesiastes is that life is going to take us where we don't want go. And I can't be wise enough, rich enough (as if I'd ever be as a professor and preacher), or religious enough to avoid life's bumpy roads or detours. Call me crazy but this hopeful-uncertainty, or heightened acceptance, is liberating—like finally confessing that my wife knows more than me and is usually right.
For several years, I'd try to connect with my students by periodically inserting one of their slang words into my class discussions. Perhaps this tactic never worked as well as I thought. However about 5 years ago one graduating student who had taken me for a few courses came to my office. A somber aura surrounded her as she remarked, "Dr. Holmes, I have to tell you something."
"Please sit down," I invited. "How can I help you?"
"You know how you sometimes try to use our slang in your lectures?"
"Most of the students think you're a pretty good teacher."
"But all of us agree that you are a great guy that really cares about us."
"Thanks. That means a lot to me."
"So would you stop using slang and accept that you are old? We have."
I didn't see that coming.
Ready or not, life is coming on its own terms. Accept this truth with gusto! This is why Ecclesiastes still speaks to us.