One Final Note on Character, Part IV

CompassOne 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?


Categories: Character, Leadership

6 replies

  1. Thank you for this important reminder, Phil. I whole-heartedly agree that modeling character is of the essence when we talk about how to “teach for character.” As I read through your previous posts on teaching character, and through some of the comments, an important disctinction began to emerge. There is a difference between teaching character as in hurling at a student a list of traits that a person of character should possess and hoping that some of them stick, versus modeling character and providing opportunities where students will learn the value of these traits, sometimes without them even realizing it.

    If I had to sit down and list the elements of character that I learned in college by way of having a professor lecture on that very topic, I would have a difficult time. However, if I were to list out some of the valuable character traits that I gained through my experience as a student at SPU (undergrad and graduate) by way of having those traits modeled for me, the list would be long indeed.

    As I consider this latter, (and more effective I think,) approach to teaching for character, I’m reminded of a concept that one of my Theology professors termed “smuggling truth.” The term as she used it referred to the use of fantasy and imaginative works as a means of pointing to some greater truth without spelling out those truths explicitly. I wonder if we could similarly term the task of modeling character for our students “smuggling character”?

  2. Definitely appreciate your insight. I read the whole series. You sound a bit down on things. Chin up. I’m sure you are a great role model to students and to your peers who have an influence on their students’ lives.

  3. Thank you for this character series. Yes, what else sets apart the Christ follower than ‘character’. It is more important to be holy in God’s sight than anything we do or teach, as we know all our righteous acts are like filthy rags apart from Him in us. How else can we be ever reminded and encouraged toward this, except by witnessing each other’s example, one to another.

  4. As the parents of two very young children, my wife and I are constantly amazed by the things they pick up, not only from us, but from things all around. Even the brief, barely noticed things do not escape their attention. Somehow, as they get older, we tend to forget that and focus on book learning and experiences. Jesus was amazing, not only because He knew the scriptures and spent time teaching many, but because He constantly modeled what He taught. His actions always(!!!) matched His words. He never took a day off, or thought, no one will notice. When we put ourselves out there as Christians, we hold ourselves to that standard, to being Christ-like. So many lives have been hurt by Christians modeling less than Christian ideals. That is why prayer, study and mutual accountability are so important, we are His example to the world and we need to be ready for that responsibility. Having children opened my eyes to how they learn, seeing how we teach Christ with our lives can be less obvious, but so very important. Thanks so much for your words and example.

  5. Wow, this is great. I just stumbled onto this site for the first time and I appreciate so much the family of God talking about Him and such important matters – it is inspiring and encouraging. I would just add that even followers of Christ make mistakes (even pastors and university presidents), but God still chooses to love us as we repent, ask forgiveness, and make ammends when possible. It is the miraculousness (a word?) of God shouldering some of our responsiblity in providing a way to be made whole again, and us choosing to be responsible in “walking the talk” of being transformed daily (Paul) by the Holy Spirit in our lives, and “fessing up” to those mistakes instead of living in hypocrasy and living the life of the wagging finger lunatic that the media so loves to portray. Again, I believe we are valuable because God chooses to love us, not loved because we are valuable in what we accomplish, etc. This incredible love changes everything – it certainly is changing me day by day. Thankful to be part of such a God shaped family!

  6. I think many times we get caught up in emotion and lose track of the affect that we have on others. And I believe that a little bit of character and treating people right goes a long way because it spreads to others who in turn spread it to the people they interact with in their lives.


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