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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | From the President

Reflections on a Study Leave

Rediscovering the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture

I feel like I have died and gone to heaven. I am on what we call a “study leave” for a few months. After 10 years of serving Seattle Pacific University as its president, I was encouraged by the Board of Trustees to step back a bit, to take some time for rest and recharging for the next chapter, but perhaps more importantly, to take time to write and reflect and study in ways not possible in my normal, daily swirl. The day I began this whole venture, I got off the plane and automatically pulled out my phone only to read these exhilarating words: “no appointments.” I was startled. I suspect that is the first time in all of these rich and busy 10 years I had ever seen that particular message. That felt like heaven for a season.

Some theologians imagine that heaven will be the fulfillment of one’s deepest sense of calling. No hanging out on the clouds here, but rather the actual doing of the good and meaningful work we always wanted to get done. I am not talking about finishing a to-do list. No, I am talking about the time and the space to pursue our heart’s deepest yearning, hoping to discover all the while that our desire lines up with God’s desire for us. Alignment is a key, and I hope that’s something of what’s happening on this leave.

You mean I get to take some precious, extended time to think and read and write about the deeper mission and purpose of Christian higher education? All day, if I want? You mean I get to think about how Seattle Pacific University might actually change the world, digging down, perhaps into some levels that are deeper and more nuanced than before?

I get up every morning and make a Starbucks run and then study and pray and write. Now, I know many people, perhaps most, would not consider that fun. I come from a family of business people, and something like a study leave was not in the vocabulary of my father. I can imagine he is looking down and shouting so that I might hear: “Say what? You’re doing what? You mean you are not going into the office every day?” I come from a long line of English Puritans, and my work ethic is so strong that I am required to feel guilty when I am having this much fun.

And what am I discovering in all of this idyllic time of reflection and study? I am discovering how grateful I am for the work I get to do year after year in one of the finest Christian universities in the country. Stepping back from it all makes me even more grateful for this good place, its clear vision, and for the truly good people who make it all happen. I am grateful to be doing what I hope is meaningful work, this thinking and envisioning, work that might in the end bring meaning to others, on our campus and beyond, perhaps some small contribution to make the world a better place.

I am grateful as well to the people who support me in these efforts, for the Board of Trustees, for my Cabinet officers, for Vice President Marj Johnson who became point person in my absence, for Karen Jacobson and Mindy Galbreath Worthington and their able management of the President’s Office, for leaders all across the campus. I am grateful to the faculty and staff of Seattle Pacific for carrying on with such distinction and competence and deep commitment. I am grateful to the most wonderful students in the world, who have shown their support for me during this leave. I am grateful for phones and email and the Internet and overnight mail, so I can keep my fingers in the pie. I am grateful to my wife, Sharon, for cheerfully giving me solitude and for being willing to listen, patiently, when I step out of my study. We’re going to movies and out to dinner and talking a lot, and I am grateful.

I have also discovered that genuine community is the mark of a great institution, that learning and discovery require a common purpose, that our long-held commitment to grace-filled community is absolutely essential if we expect to change the world. I have discovered further and deeper theological underpinnings for this commitment, and I pledge to nurture this core of SPU even more.

I have discovered in deeper ways the extraordinary work of people such as N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Lesslie Newbigin, Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Henry Newman, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, James Davidson Hunter, Christopher Smith, Stanley Fish, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Jaroslav Pelikan, Pope John Paul II, and, yes, even Friedrich Nietzsche. Most all of this was rereading and rediscovery for me, but I think I have new handles on the encounter between the gospel and contemporary culture with the help of all of these amazing people. I will be passing on my thoughts about this reading list over time.

I am also studying in depth the book of Psalms, Acts (with a commentary by our own Professor Rob Wall), 1 Corinthians (my centerpiece text), 2 Corinthians, and Romans. As you can see, I am hot on the trail of Paul’s astounding vision for a world transformed by the gospel. I have lots of new thoughts, by the way, about Paul as a leader and a visionary. I come out of all of this study and reflection and rest and renewal embracing the Christian story in ways that have penetrated my heart more profoundly than ever before. And for that I am deeply grateful.

Well, that’s something about my study leave. Now, it’s back to the way Nietzsche shaped a culture of denial and suspicion and what a gospel-shaped university might have to say about that.

BY Philip W. Eaton

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