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When Academia and Faith Collides; Lessons from the Professor whose class I never attended.

He passed me each morning, eyes cutting my way as if falling upon a piece of annoying debris, lips muttering inaudible grumblings beneath overgrown beard and breath. Feeling a slight prick by his obvious disgust and dismissal, I met his invasion with a smile. How could I not, my spirit was full.

It was a Tuesday or maybe a Thursday, whichever; it was an ordinary day weeks into our routine encounter when he stopped before my window, looked down at me and exclaimed. “Don’t you ever think you can thump THAT book at me.” To say his words smacked me is a gross understatement, yet although I felt under attack, I was strangely calm.

I didn’t look up, kept my eyes on the page and with a shallow smile, responded, “Not to worry.”

From there, with sarcasm and furrowed brow, our amble began. “So, what does THAT book tell you today?” he barked at me through the glass. I looked up this time, slid the door open, smiled and said, “I’m reading the book of Job, a poetic book in the Old Testament — It’s one man’s story of trials and a test of character.” There was no response, no goodbye, he simply walked away.

As the months unfolded, I left my door open. His approach became softer, his bellow melted as his questions grew into words of curiosity rather than accusation. He lingered. And although I never saw a full smile, I believe there was a gentle lifting to the edges of his eyes as “that book” became “your Bible”.

It was Monday, I remember it well by the void of his presence. Had I offended him? Had I pushed too far? Do I look for his office and apologize? On Wednesday I walked the campus to see if I could spy his hunched body tip-toeing down an alternate hall. But, nothing.

After a few weeks I asked the admin in his division if she knew where his office was and when he had office hours. Her face grew pale as she hesitated, “He is very ill and will not be returning.” I’m sure the shock on my face caught her by surprise, as did my request for his contact information. I told her about our daily exchange and that I was concerned. She paused, looked down as if to hold back any emotion or wanting to share, and stated he had requested privacy.

Months passed, and I prayed for my friend daily, especially in the quiet time we used to share. And then one day while passing through a busy cafeteria, I noticed him sitting alone at a table near the window. My heart raced with joy at the assumption he was better, but as I neared him I realized I was very wrong. He was fragile bodied and his ashen face etched in defeat lay concealed beneath unkempt and brittle beard. I fear I besieged him with questions. “Professor, I’m so excited to see you, how are you? Have you returned? I’m sure your students have missed you, I know I have! When did you get back?” He paused, inhaled, and at exhale he said, “I am not well. I am cleaning out my office today.”

I found myself at a loss for words but as our eyes connected in the impactive pause, the words tumbled from heart to voice, “May I pray for you?”

He bristled like a porcupine and grumbled, “Oh all right, just don’t do it out loud and DON’T make a spectacle of yourself!” I stood up from my chair, walked behind him and placed my hands upon his shoulders. I closed my eyes and silently prayed.

When done, I spoke Amen out-loud and squeezed his shoulders ever so gently. I gave him my card and said that if he needed anything — anything at all — he could call me. We parted with a gentle hug. I wish I had done or said more, but at the moment, it felt enough.

His name popped up in my email as I was closing my day. I opened it, thinking he may need help to carry things out to his car. His message read:

“I have never been more profoundly moved. Never before has anyone prayed for me or found me worthy of prayer. Thank you. ~ Professor”

He passed away only a few days after our last encounter. His words still haunt me, and yet, they bless me. I am saddened he did not know Christ - only of Him, and I regret that my walk was not confident enough to present the Gospel to him on that last day. Yet, while I am haunted to know he went through life believing he was less, I am glad to have been the conduit that allowed him to experience - if even for a moment - how very worthy and loved was. 

They say those hardest to love are those who need it most. I believe this to be true. I also believe God speaks to us through the people he brings to and through our lives. This genius of a man, whose class I never entered, through his own seeking, gifted me a life learning I could not have gained from book or pen. He, the professor and the seeker challenged me to love my neighbor as myself, to defend and share my beliefs, and to grant grace and love even when I could not understand.

We - all students and teachers. God’s perfect design.

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