teaching machines

Navigators Talk

My friend and Navigators campus director Jeff Clochesy gave me the opportunity to speak at Nav Night this past semester. Nav Night is a weekly fellowship time of the Navigators campus ministry.

I’m Chris Johnson, which rhymes with Wisconsin. For the past six years I’ve been teaching computer science at the college level. You folks are fun. I’m glad to be here at UWEC and glad to be with you tonight.

The way I got into computer science was through hatred. I hated riding the bus in middle school. We lived twelve miles from town, so for me it was two hours daily of bumps and jostles and fearing for your life and having others put chewing gum put it your hair because they thought it’d be funny. I convinced my mom to let me go to the library after school instead and then I’d ride home with her after work. She consented. At the library I became engrossed by stories and decided to be an author. As I filled my notebooks with bad fantasy, I realized that if I was going to send these off to a publisher, I’d need to type them up. Enter the computer. Mom brought home her work computer on the weekends for me. Instead of writing more, however, I made maps in paint programs, composed music, and built web pages. I took a programming class in high school, got a good scholarship to study computer science in college because I knew what an iterator was, and I soon started my formal training as a computer scientist at a school very much like this one. My very first semester I also became a Christian. I fell in with a group of guys that didn’t put gum in other people’s hair but prayed for each other instead. Computer science through hatred, Christianity through love.

To make a long story short, I finished college and went to graduate school because I wanted to teach impressionable people. Six years in, I still want to. Tonight I’d like share with you a bit of what a Christian professor thinks about when he’s not grading.

At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students some questions so I can get to know them better: “What’s the last unassigned book you read?” and “What would you do with your life if computers didn’t exist?” Some will write answers that make me think they’re Christian, as in these examples:

  • B. had just read the Great Divorce. F.
  • M. had just read the Bible. Dropped.
  • N. would spend more time at church. Dropped. Can you tell where this is going?
  • J. had just read Revelation Unveiled. He’d enter ministry. C.
  • Z. had just read the Great Divorce. B.
  • J. had just read Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace and played in a worship band. B+.
  • T. had just read Isaiah. A-.
  • D. says he’d do whatever God sees fit. A-.
  • Z. had just read the Bible. A-.
  • N. would become a pastor. A.
  • D. had just read The Doctrines of Grace and would be a theologian or farmer. A.
  • J. had just read The Screwtape Letters. A.
  • T. had just read the Lost World of Genesis 1. He’d become an actuary or enter full-time ministry. A.

I strung you along there at the beginning. Most of these folks got really good grades. I like to see Christian students perform well in their classes and, for the most part, they do. The sad part though is that I only remember two of these students. One of those two invited me to his wedding! Shouldn’t I have known these other Christian students better? Shouldn’t they have emerged as leaders and peer mentors or shouldn’t they have at least talked with me as a fellow human being? What does a Christian student look like? I have few ideas.

Caring

Sometimes I feel like my atheist friends have an advantage over me. Their only hope is this world, so it seems easier for them to get excited about data and theories and writing papers and other academic junk. I heard a statistician give a talk one time, and he asked us, “What do you think students are for?” His answer was, “To generate numbers. And you know what I do with those numbers? I rub them all over my body.” He really likes his field.

Then one day I picked up this book by John Muir. He’s a Christian guy who one day decided to walk from Indiana to Florida right after the Civil War ended—and he a Yankee. The purpose of his walk was to botanize, to inspect plants. One night he stopped at a farm house in the South, and his host started questioning his expedition:

“You look like a strong-minded man, ” he replied, “and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.”

To this I replied, “You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?” “Oh, yes.” “Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.

“Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I’ll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to ‘consider the lilies how they grow,’ and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s? Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’ You say, ‘Don’t consider them. It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.'”

This got me thinking, “There’s a non-Christian over there fascinated by how salmon spawn. There’s one figuring out how our brains develop. There’s one studying how diseases spread. Since I’m a believer in the God who created all this, can my delight in such subjects be any less than the non-Christian’s? There’s a non-Christian making software to help people. Can I be less excited to do the same?” No. Everyday we walk around in the fingerprints of God, and we don’t even recognize it. Our lives down here do not need to be separated from our faith. In fact, the only way we’re going to enjoy this Earth is by viewing our time here as a means of pursuing God. Whatever your major, whatever your job, whatever your irrelevant gen ed, milk it. You don’t have to have achieve worldly success and land a stellar GPA, but a Christian student does have to care.

Part of caring is being responsible. That means getting enough sleep. That means homework. That means reading. That means talking in class. Because you want to. In Corinth, there were apparently some slaves who felt like they could be doing something better in life than being slaves. Paul writes to them, and does he say, “Slavery is a waste of time! Drag your feet, leave spots on the dishes, and do everything half-heartedly until you are free!”? No, he says, “Slavery! Awesome. Work hard.” You can check out his particular phrasing in 1 Corinthians 7.

Who knows? Caring may have more impact than you think. Muir went on to influence Congress to form the national park system.

Okay. Point 1: Christian students care about their studies. Let’s move on.

Treasures in Heaven

During my freshman year I started reading the Bible for the first time. I very quickly fell in love with some of the language that Jesus uses. Like when he says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy.” Whenever my pants got a hole in them or a dish would break, I’d say, “Oh, well. Treasures in heaven, right?” I knew that pants and dishes were not treasures in heaven, because they could not last, but I’m not sure I could have told you what things actually were treasures in heaven.

Then one day I went to church and learned. It was probably the second service I attended that day. I usually went to two churches and two services to make up for my teenage years. Pastor Dan asked us, “What are treasures in heaven? Treasures in heaven are people.” He said it really forcefully. People last. Things don’t. Ideas don’t. People do.

My first summer of college I had planned to work at a state park and mow lawns. I just needed some time to be alone and not busy after my freshman year. Then some of my friends started telling me I should go be a camp counselor with them at a Bible camp for middle-schoolers. “Too many little people out of control,” I said. “They probably will put gum in my hair.” Anyway, they wore me down, I got yelled at by the state park guy for backing out, and I ultimately spent three summers at this Bible camp hanging out with treasures in heaven. Each week a couple of us counselors worked maintenance—we’d mow lawns instead of having a cabinful of kids. Those weeks were boring.

In between those summers, back on campus, I made sure I never loved the computer without loving people at the same time. I signed up to tutor computer science classes, I served as a conversation partner for a Japanese student, I joined the welcome team at my church and got to drive a golf cart out to pick people up at the remote end of the parking lot. When it came time to decide my career, I knew it had to be as full of people as it was of technology. But maybe not middle school people. I wanted to teach college students. Whoo!

Whatever you are studying here, make sure you are signing up for 3 credits of living life with other people each semester. In particular, there are two kinds of people I read about in my Bible that especially need our attention. The first is the fringe. The weird people, the ugly, the awkward, the poor, the older. The second is our enemies. The people who live above you and smoke pot. The folks that support Governor Walker. The folks that don’t support Governor Walker. And maybe I can throw in a third kind of people? Talk to your professors. Let them know that you hear them, ask them who they are. They may be rude and arrogant and aloof, but these professors don’t just go away at the end of the semester. They are eternal beings. Thank them. Invest in them.

Okay. Point 2: Christian students invest in people, the real treasures in heaven. Let’s move on.

Motivation

School was very empowering to me. I was finally becoming good at something! And I was headed off to graduate school in Tennessee to become even better. All this was fulfilling a dream of mine—of being useful and important, a dream which had been fueled by nothing less than a proverb:

Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men. [Proverbs 22:29]

I’d read about Joseph, a smart kid who got recognized by pharaoh and ultimately saved Egypt and his family from famine. I’d read about Daniel, a smart kid who controlled lions. My favorite heroes were the smart ones, and I was looking forward to entering those ranks. I’d gotten good scholarships, had an internship at a national laboratory, had won a mug design contest. I was on my way.

Then in my second year of graduate school, my eyes started giving me trouble. When I looked at a computer screen, they’d flare up red. Painfully. And it didn’t go away. A whole year I battled this with ophthalmologists and scary eye drops. I tried to hide the fact from my professors and peers. I put a timer on my computer to force me to take breaks. Nothing helped. It’s hard to be a computer scientist without eyes. So, I quit. My wife and I moved back to Iowa and volunteered at a Bible camp for the summer to collect our thoughts.

Hadn’t God intended for me to get a PhD? Wasn’t my way so clear that it must have been God who paved it? Hadn’t I been working on this since the days when Mom brought the computer home from her work? Right before Jesus dies on the cross, he asks, “God. God. Why have you forsaken me?” That question echoed through my own head. I realize now that there’s a better place to start. First ask, “God. God. Have you forsaken me?”

For you see, things were better back in Iowa. My eyes calmed down. I could look at a computer screen. Things were okay enough that my advisor said, “Your eyes like Iowa better. You stay there, but let’s finish this PhD thing.” And I did. Working remotely was certainly not easy, but probably the hardest part was the fact that Iowa was mostly filled with obscure men. “Where are my kings?”, I wondered.

My eyes still weren’t perfect, so I had to treat them with care. Instead of reading books, I started listening to audiobooks. I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. There’s a character in that book named Levin. He’s a very rational and well-to-do guy who struggles with faith because it doesn’t make sense to him. Faith didn’t fit his sense of reason. Then one day he talks to an obscure man, a peasant, who says something that clears his mind. Levin starts thinking:

He [the peasant] said we must not live for our needs—that is, we must not live for what we understand and what attracts us, what we wish for, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God whom nobody can understand or define.

He goes on:

If goodness has a cause, it is no longer goodness; if it has a consequence—a reward, it is also not goodness.

Levin was able to enter into a relationship with God when he stopped sizing everything in life up as a business venture.

I viewed my education as a business venture, a vehicle to importance and self-worth. I was more concerned about the reward of being intellectually advanced than in learning. I had turned a good thing into a selfish thing. When my goals were threatened, I floundered. After I relinquished my dream of serving before kings, I decoupled my education from my self-worth and I learned that obscure men are the very ones I want to serve. Jesus tells me the last shall be first. Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. I didn’t want to check people’s credentials before I valued them.

In thinking about what I wanted to share with you tonight, I was tempted to say things that appealed to my sense of reason. Like “Work hard at school so that you can have a big impact later on.” Or “Be a good student so that the world can see how respectable and responsible Christians are and maybe want to join in.” The problem is, our sense of reason is driven by reward. The desire for that reward overtakes us and cheapens the pursuit. The pharisees prayed out loud on the street corners. Their reward was to be heard and they got their reward—“in full,” Jesus says. I think I’d rather have God hear my prayers.

That brings us to point 3: we do things because they are good. Leave it at that. You care about your studies because caring about your studies is good. You love others because loving others is good. We don’t need more reward.

Conclusion

Here you are at this university, writing papers, listening to professors drone on, and finding ways to get cultural diversity credit. You may be passively floating along, you might wonder about the worth of it all, or you might be eager to move on to bigger things. I want to leave you with the thoughts of an English professor that you may know and maybe have just read like B., Z., and J. C.S. Lewis told the following to students who were second-guessing going to class when they could instead be fighting battles in World War II:

The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God… This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.

You are here at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, with 11000 others, seeking an education. Your situation of being a Christian student suggests what you are to do while you are here. Love what you’re learning and invest in people. Why? Because these are good things and God is their source.

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