One Christmas Eve a couple of years ago, as we began a joyous dinner in our home with our whole family, I opened our time with a blessing for our meal. I gave thanks for our family as we gathered together to celebrate the baby Jesus on this sacred evening in the Christian calendar.
The next day we gathered again for Christmas day festivities, and as we approached yet another meal, our then-7-year-old grandson Andrew asked if he could say the blessing. As he led the family in thanks, I began to hear the phrases and rhythms and tone of my own prayer the night before. He had been listening attentively. He had absorbed a great deal. I was astonished.
And I thought, whether I was aware of it or not, I was being watched by these little ones. Whether I liked it or not, I was a model for him about how Christmas prayers ought to be given, a model for so many other things, I am sure.
And I think often, we better be careful what we model for young people, because they are watching and listening, even though at times we might assume they are not. We need to be exceedingly intentional about what we model.
This may be the heart of the matter for teaching character, this modeling that goes on all the time, the fact that young people are watching who we are by what we do.
I remember a few years ago I got up early on a Saturday morning, somewhat bleary-eyed after a long week, and padded my way into my study. This was before my double-shot-whole-milk-no-foam latte, and so the neurons were not firing adequately yet at that point in the morning. I began to scan through my emails and noticed one from a student. I don’t get this kind of note very often, but this student was demanding from me why I drive my car to my office. Now you need to understand my wife and I live in the president’s home just a block away from my office, and this student thought it was ludicrous and wasteful that I would choose to drive. And her tone was not very nice.
Before I could catch myself, I shot a note back essentially saying it was none of her business. I had my reasons, of course, that I needed my car during the day and the mountain-climb back to my house was steep indeed. My tone was not very nice either, and I could feel the power coming through my words. I could put her in her place. I was just a little mad.
What happened the next day, believe it or not, is a true story. As our pastor Mark Abbott was giving the closing prayer at our church, he said something like this: “Lord, keep us from using our positions of power to put other people down. Help us not to diminish others with our words.” Oh, my, did I feel convicted, caught! I went home immediately and wrote a note of apology to this student.
Would she forgive me for my words of anger and for my tone? Could she understand that I was tired and snapped too quickly to judgment? Was she aware that email sometimes lets us depersonalize the person to whom we write, and she may have been guilty of that as well?
Do we actually model integrity and honesty, decency and civility, transparency and vulnerability? Shouldn’t that be a primary strategy and aspiration for all of us in the university? But here is my main point for today: We can’t teach character if we don’t model these things in the way we live and do our work. The younger generation is watching. They are absorbing and learning.
I absolutely believe we must teach our students the sources for these virtues. For us at Seattle Pacific, we find the deepest roots for character formation in Christian teaching, from our ancient Scriptures, from the best of what has been written throughout the centuries, from both Christians and others. We want to get in front of our students nuanced thinking about the sources of character.
But none of this will matter unless we model what we teach. It is in this intentional modeling where our teaching takes on life and vitality and visibility for our students. This has got to be the beginning point as we seek to teach character. The Christian university must model Christian character in all we do, in the way we teach, in the way we treat each other, in the communities of grace and trust we build for our work, in the way we do our business.
This intentional modeling is the task before us as we seek to turn the corner on so much of the scandalous behavior we witness in our papers each morning. Don’t you think?