By Abigail Woolley
Church historian Sarah Williams, when describing a spirituality of parenthood, once described the act of welcoming and raising children as “hospitality to the stranger.” In cases of adoption, this might not be so surprising: parents really have very little idea who their child might turn out to be. But this way of looking at parenthood, for Williams, applied no less to biological children.
Her book The Shaming of the Strong (Regent College Publishing, 2007) vividly demonstrates this commitment to extend hospitality. It is her memoir of carrying a child to term after a fatal deformity had been detected early in the pregnancy. She describes the love her husband, other children, and extended family members gave the unborn boy. She tells of crying out to God in love for the child she knew she would lose. Complications arose that nearly took claimed her life.
Years later, as my professor, she responded passionately when I asked her what she thought of the idea that Christians should choose not to have biological children, but only adopt: “Children are not a choice.”
In the years since, as I have interacted with other people’s children in my classrooms, I have often pondered what this call to hospitality means for me. As it turns out, it couldn’t be more fitting. Since I was a quick and eager student, it can be tempting for me to expect my middle-school students to be curious and driven, not to need me to repeat instructions, and not to struggle with concepts or to sit still. I have sometimes been taken aback and dismayed when this standard is not met.
One way of looking at it would be that, since (as I often hear) children rise to meet the expectations we set for them, it is appropriate for me to expect excellence. I think this can work, but only if we make sure not to expect excellence from the start. It doesn’t help to be shocked by failure, particularly when we have not taken the long journey of training students patiently and gently. We can often enforce high standards, if we remember that enforcement means helping students reach them, rather than simply punishing them for failing. It’s up to us to take them step by step toward the goal, showing them the way and easing it for them. So yes, there is this sense in which high standards can be exactly right.
There’s a more damaging attitude that could underlie high standards. I’m pretty sure that at times an underlying motivation for my expectations has been to make my students more like me. A feeble part of me fears that if I agree to adjust my expectations for them, I am admitting that I am existentially alone — that I am not normal, and that kindred spirits may not come along every day. Somewhere inside, I want to prove that my particular way of learning is simply a result of environment, and that I’m not unusual at all. So, of course, I need to pressure my students to reflect my passions and show my strengths. (This usually involves forgetting how much grace has been extended to me for my weaknesses.)
Parker Palmer’s Courage to Teach (Wiley, 1997) names the connection between teachers’ vulnerabilities and their performance in the classroom: “As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my subject, my students, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life.” Often, he says, teachers are fearful of the “otherness” of people and ideas that are beyond their control.
A teacher who has cultivated the calling, by contrast, will lean into connectedness — not only connection to the subject matter and to the students as they are, but also the wholeness of self-knowledge and personal integrity. A heart open to the other before us (or as St. John put it, perfect love) “casts out fear” (1 John 4:8).
The icon that has guided my prayers as a teacher is Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” — or, more accurately, “The Hospitality of Abraham.” The subject is the three angels Abraham entertained with a calf below the oak of Mamre, which interpreters have identified with the persons of the Trinity. The three winged, haloed figures form a circle that symbolizes the perichoretic union — the mutual indwelling — of the Trinity. They share a feast that represents their eternal fellowship. The figures are equal, but the Son and the Holy Spirit bow their heads to the Father, signifying their submission.
What is most remarkable about this image, however, is that — in keeping with traditional iconography — the subject is not closed to the viewer. Here, perhaps more palpably than in most icons, the fourth wall is removed. It is as if we, in seeing the icon, are invited to join God at the table.
And perhaps surprisingly, this is not blasphemous — it is true! We as the Church are indeed no fourth person of the Trinity; rather, in Christ, we are “seated with him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:6).
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)
In Jesus we experience this fellowship with God. It’s like being invited to an exclusive banquet and included in every part of it — not because of who we are, but because of whom we’ve married. God has gone above and beyond to bring us in, and delights in lavishing further kindness on us. We are brought to God’s table to dine with the Trinity.
This image is appropriate as a guide for my work as a teacher because it reminds me of the welcome God has given me, and that I must therefore extend to others. I need not fear strain or loneliness. I do not give up my identity, deny the purpose of my gifts, or forfeit my place in the world when I affirm others’ quite different gifts. This is because my place is secured by being in Christ and called by him, not by my ability to replicate myself, expanding my territory and influence. The God who asks me to extend his invitation to them is certainly not at the same time going to revoke his invitation to me.
It is as a teacher that I have contemplated these things, but how I hope to live into them when I (Lord willing) become a parent! Whether adopted or biological, our children are utter strangers whom God is inviting into fellowship. By inviting them to imitate God, not ourselves, we acknowledge that they, and we, are his.