This past week marked my 36th trip around the sun (I’m still accepting Amazon gift cards, by the way). In brazen defiance of reality, I decided to celebrate by pretending I could still play basketball. So, I invited some of my colleagues to join me in the Kinney Field House for a few pick-up games. Reality would have none of it, of course. Of the two dozen people I invited, only six others were able to attend. This is Stony Brook, after all, so my colleagues were either 1) chaperoning a student trip, 2) squeezing in a few hours of family time, 3) grading essays, or 4) injured or certain that they would quickly become so had they joined us on the court. So, I did something that few other 36 year-old would do. I emailed a few teenagers. Within six minutes, a group of young men arrived to hoop it up with a bunch of geezers reliving their glory days. But this is Stony Brook, so this shouldn’t be surprising. I predicted it, actually. I had even said to a colleague, “Watch, I’ll email these guys, and they’ll be here, ready to play, in ten minutes.”
The ringleader of the group and first through the door was a senior from China. I met him a few years ago, shortly after he arrived at the Brook. I had been assigned the ever-dreaded duty of health center driver for that night, and this boy needed some late night stitches at St. Charles Hospital. While we waited in the aptly named waiting room, we talked about his family, about his transition to Stony Brook, and about his love for basketball. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be home with my wife and kids. I wanted to prep for my next morning’s class. I wanted more than four hours of sleep! But God wanted me there. When asked by the man at the registration desk if he cared to name a religion, the young Brooker, with a questioning tone, replied, “I guess I’d have to say Christian.”
This is Stony Brook.
I spend most of my days at Stony Brook solving puzzles and problems, designing curricula and classrooms and web pages, and sitting in meetings (so many meetings). Some of it gives me deep joy and satisfaction. Some of it is tedious, frustrating, thankless, and discouraging. God plants his church at the Gates of Hell, a pastor of mine once told me. I’ve discovered that He plants schools with missions like ours in the same neighborhood. The work is hard. Sometimes really hard. But once a day eleven teenagers arrive to my office and sit around a Harkness table to discuss philosophy, and I’m reminded why I’m here. I greet my students one-by-one as they enter. Welcome kids from Long Island, Japan, China, and Russia. Welcome students from Christian families, struggling with their parents’ faith. Welcome skeptics, curious but on guard, watching and wondering at my witness. Welcome new Christian who stays after class each day yearning for discipleship. Welcome young man I took to the emergency room, who claims the name of Christ more confidently now. Welcome anxious teenagers trying to find their way through all the noise, wondering if they measure up, hardly able to think straight. Welcome to the table. Come meet my friends, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. Let’s reason together.
This week we start down paths I’ve trod many times. Does God exist? Do we have free will? I know where the conversations will go. But the journey will undoubtedly be different, and I will be different at its end. My traveling partners are new. They don’t yet know where the dead-ends and briar patches are. They don’t yet know that they need to pace themselves. And some of them even think they know the way, like I did at their age. I’ll let them explore the dead-ends, let them get caught in the thickets a few times before they’re ready for me to brush them off and point them in the right direction. Plato recommends dragging people kicking and screaming out of the cave. I’m too sore from basketball to do any dragging right now.
This is Stony Brook.
I have now spent a full one-quarter of my life on these fifty-five beautiful, blessed acres. I’ve seen three of my four children born here, and I’ve worked for three headmasters. My first students, eighth graders when I arrived, just started grad school at places like Cambridge and Oxford. I have lived in two dorms and two houses, both former residences of Marvin Goldberg. To the alumni who visited campus this weekend for Homecoming I’m new. I wasn’t here ten years ago at their last reunion, and I certainly wasn’t here when Marvin Goldberg told them to “go ahead, please.” One alumnus from the class of ‘66 quipped that he has ties older than me. I suppose I should be flattered. But, I don’t feel young, and I don’t feel new. I feel the weight of James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. I feel the burden of nine years of soul-shaping souls.
This is Stony Brook, so after putting my children to bed and before prepping my Ethics Bowl mini-course on Tuesday night, I spent a few hours with my colleagues discussing an article by Alan Jacobs on the plight of the Christian public intellectual since the 1950’s. Stony Brook has somehow survived, has become a safe haven for what the world can only regard as chimeras – Christian scholars – and as I look around at room at these mythical creatures, I’m reminded that I’m not alone, that my struggles and my triumphs in the day-to-day are shared by people who have pitched their tents with me, right at the Gates of Hell, where Christ is seated on His throne, showing us who we are.
We are Stony Brook.