By Dan Clendenin

Twenty years ago this fall, my family moved back home from Moscow State University in Russia, where I had spent four years as a visiting professor in the Department of Scientific Atheism, to California, where I joined a campus ministry to work with graduate students at Stanford University.

Despite their differences, Moscow University and Stanford were similar in two respects. Both were elite institutions. And at both paces I felt out of my league — partly because of my insecurities due to “imposter syndrome,” and partly because I really was out of my league.

A few weeks after moving to California in 1995, I turned forty. Which means I’m turning sixty next month. The gospel for this week has helped me to think about these last twenty years.

In the fall of 1997, we piloted a “faculty fellowship” for Stanford professors. About a dozen faculty members began a breakfast meeting every Friday morning from 7–8am in the faculty club. A year later, a Tuesday morning group started in the Bing Dining Room at the hospital for physicians. A few years after that, a small Thursday group emerged for physicists at Stanford’s linear accelerator.

We had no idea whether it would work, much less flourish, but across the next six years a hundred or so professors, research fellows, lecturers, scientists, and visiting faculty joined us at one time or another.

What was the attraction?

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Children laughing.

When we started, most people didn’t know each other, so each week a different person shared their story. The very first Friday morning, Doug disarmed everyone with a candid account of his disintegrating marriage. The room got very quiet, except for words of encouragement.

The next week, Tony related his frustrations with raising teenagers. Another professor recounted his financial failures.

It became clear that these remarkably gifted people who had reached the pinnacle of professional success were more interested in sharing personal stories than intellectual ideas. I like to think that the group became a safe space, and as a result, many good and important questions bubbled to the surface. In Rilke’s famous phrase, we tried to “live the questions.”

How do you balance personal and professional responsibilities?

How do spouses negotiate dual careers with heavy demands?

What advice might an older professor give to a younger scholar facing the tenure process?

Does God care about my research? Answer: “Yes, but probably not as much as you do.”

I still remember the morning when Chuck noted with his trademark sardonic wit that “behind every great man there often lies a trail of human wreckage.”

Without intending to, we discovered the message of Jesus in this week’s gospel, that the holy grail of human greatness that we honor, envy and pursue — rank, wealth, recognition, power, title, privilege, and prestige, can exact a high personal price. Professional success has a limited capacity to nourish personal fulfillment. It doesn’t protect us from human vulnerabilities, and sometimes it prevents us from experiencing the fullness of God’s kingdom.

To make his point, by his words and actions Jesus radically reversed our normal ideas about greatness. He said that little children epitomize life in God’s kingdom.

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Somali girl laughing.

Three different times in Mark’s gospel, Jesus warned his disciples about the tragic end that awaited him in Jerusalem. And all three times they responded with objections, disbelief, fear, and ignorance.

After his first “passion prediction,” Peter rebuked Jesus: “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” But Jesus rebuked Peter for trying to prevent his sufferings: “You do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man.”

After another prediction, James and John asked Jesus for positions of glory. The ten other disciples were indignant, clearly worried that James and John might gain some advantage over them.

And then in this week’s gospel, after a third passion prediction, the disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest. There’s a bitter irony in their question, because in the previous paragraph they were unable to heal a little boy.

Jesus responded to his disciples in two ways. First, he gave them a teaching: “Calling the Twelve to himself, Jesus said, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.’”

Second, Jesus dramatized his teaching with some street theater. He placed a little child before the disciples. He then embraced the child and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Matthew’s parallel account of the same passage makes an interesting editorial change. In Matthew, Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

One page later in Mark’s gospel, the disciples rebuked people who brought little children to Jesus so that he would bless them. “When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”

To welcome a child is to extend the simplest of acts to an individual whom society dismisses as perhaps cute but ultimately insignificant, someone who lacks any accomplishments, greatness, status, or pretensions.

Jesus invites us to welcome every person in the same manner, without regard for their worldly importance. To welcome another person in that way, Jesus says, is to welcome him, and in turn to welcome God the Father who sent him.

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Two boys laughing.

Similarly, to become or imitate children is to see our own selves in the same way. Instead of searching for significance in titles, honors, or professional successes, we simply enjoy the knowledge that we are ordinary people loved by an extraordinary God.

After eight and a half years of campus ministry at Stanford, I needed my own safe place where I could be welcomed like a little child without regard for professional success or personal status. And I found that place — surprise, surprise, right where Jesus said I would, when I volunteered for our church nursery. Every Sunday for two years my wife and I served in the “Lambs” Sunday school class for babies three to twelve months old.

In the nursery, my importance or my insignificance, my successes and failures, didn’t matter to newborn babies. It was something of a revelation to me how good that felt. My PhD didn’t impress overweening parents — a few of whom grew visibly apprehensive when they saw a man in the nursery.

My mentors, Evelyn in her seventies and Miriam in her eighties, taught me lots about welcoming and imitating children. With little fanfare we comforted crying babies, assured anxious parents, and changed dirty diapers. Like my faculty friends at Stanford, they taught me about the real character of God’s kingdom, about what matters most and why.

Image credits: (1) Buncee.com; (2) Edna Adan Hospital of Somalia; and (3) University of Calgary.

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