First Things First (part 2)

Excerpts of the presentation by Dr. Amundson to the students, staff and faculty of the School of Art, Design & Architecture on Friday, September 11, 2015

I’ve used a number of travel metaphors here today; and the nature of that imagery keys into the final introductory idea that I wanted to communicate this afternoon. I’ve mentioned already that it’s a rare bird who knows from childhood exactly what her future profession will be, and takes a direct course to it. For Christians, the normal anxieties about taking one job, major, or class over another, oftentimes carry a special weight as we seek to be in God’s will. Indeed our language is heavy with metaphors of movement: our walk, His path, the Way. Too often, I think, these metaphors carry with them a sense of determined direction, which in American culture can be stridently redefined in terms of efficiency at the expense of other things. Surely it would be easier to live in a world where pillars of cloud and burning bushes showed us exactly what to do at times of indecision and opportunity. But that isn’t our world, and I think we limit ourselves, and God, if we look for that kind of certainty. The longer I live, and the more apparent diversions I take, the more I recognize that the way of God’s will is really broad. Had I let myself get too overwhelmed by deciding between architectural practice and architectural education, or between keeping my job at an established university in the south or taking a new position with a little Christian school in Illinois, or between keeping my fulltime teaching job or agreeing to be an interim dean, specifically to imagine that one or the other choice was the one God wanted me to make, I would be stuck, and ultimately devaluing some experience as an opportunity to serve the Kingdom. That’s why I have tried to cultivate this notion of the way of God being varied and vast. If it is a path or road, it is one with branches and forks, easy stretches and challenging spots, a wide shoulder where you can stop to take in the view or rest after falling. We can’t begin to fathom the ways of the Lord but we can seek to follow his guidance day by day: toward a goal, but with so many ways to get there.

And I would add that, when you meet a barrier, especially in the form of a voice—either external or inside your own head—telling you that it’s too narrow for many to pass, or lays beyond a gate that can only be opened by people who look, act, or speak differently than you—beware. The path of service to and in the Kingdom is a broad and open field; when we perceive of it as having strict boundaries, recognize that as a human artifact; a manmade interruption: a fence for you to dig under, cut down, or jump.

Getting around a fence can be hard work, especially if you go it alone. But with a friend to help with the shovel, or to give you a boost, it becomes easier. That is surely one of the great advantages of working and studying here, and it’s something that’s been on my mind not only in general as so many people have helped me get used to this new job, but specially today, which of course one of great solemnity and mourning. The Sept. 11 attacks happened just a few weeks into my first semester teaching here. Understandably, businesses and schools shut down across the country, some out of security concerns, others to let their people get home to their families. Judson did not close. I don’t think many people taught their lesson plan—but after some of us made a quick trip home to hug the people we had an uncontrollable urge to hug, we were back here. The President, who was on the road at the time, was patched in by phone to address us all in the chapel. Classes met for the rest of the day as scheduled, but with unscheduled discussions. It was a day of open questioning, prayer, discussion, anger, in community. It was a formative day for me here as a new faculty member and something I will never forget: that the impulse was not to scatter, but to hold tighter together, because we know we are better together, that we manage the hard parts of life better as one, just as when, on very different days, we have sweeter celebrations together.

So as you go on this road, take someone with you. You’ll need them for places where the quality of the pathway is uncertain, and a veil of fog obscures where it goes beyond a distance.

No matter what discipline or major or position they hold, all believers on this campus strive to pursue their academic and professional goals within God’s will as their primary goal: it is everyone’s first thing. In this School, we have an amazing opportunity to follow this course in a richly redemptive and fundamentally human way. Have you ever reflected on the fact that your discipline is borne of sin? Not just lower-case, garden-variety sin but THE sin from THE garden. Art, design, architecture, all of them appear after the Expulsion from Eden. This is not anything to be ashamed about; this is an amazing thing. Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists alike chart the development of humanity’s spiritual engagement—one of the key aspects of human culture—alongside their impulse to raise great stone monoliths and stencil images of their own hands on cave walls. With these efforts they exercised their understanding of the permanence of something bigger and greater than themselves: this prehistoric art and architecture is the earliest expression of human deference to a spirit world that they understood no better than we understand our otherwise mute ancestors.

Our engagement with that eternal world, and our negotiation within our temporal one, is different than that of our prehistoric forebears. But our impulse, and our responsibility, is the same, if we are brave enough to embrace it. Figuring out what that means every day and in every part of our day, is not a day’s work; it is a life’s journey. Figuring it out together—across desks and tables, classes and offices—makes the quest richer. We work and rest in the knowledge that God’s mercies are new every morning, which also means that every day we start afresh with the potential to work toward reconciliation in our relationships and in our world, through our work. We can help one another on this long path as we all seek what is most important. Those are our first things. All of us in this room will travel together a while, while we share this place for a time. Ideally when we reach the end, and by God’s grace, we can look back and see that we left the world more beautiful, and more just.

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