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Two Nashville Plantings, Circa 1970

August 8, 2023

Months ago, my next-door neighbor hired some guys to drop a big hickory tree which had been blown over into another one. It hung precariously over his house, and I give the sawyers high marks for saving the day. But the funding wasn’t there for removal, so long logs lay prominently in the yard. I loaned him my modestly-sized Stihl chainsaw (which I dearly love and for which I would supply a testimonial if the company were to contact me), and he cut me off a few 18” segments for our fireplace. I was able to reduce them to firewood with a collection of tools, including a maul, wedges, and a sledge hammer. They burned wonderfully, and I wanted more. So, over these summer months, I’ve gone back seven or eight times to cut me some others. And now I have about twenty pieces, ready for processing. (My “processing center” stands in for YMCA enrollment and occupies a portion of our carport where, after fifteen minutes of splitting and stacking, I’m about ready to cough up blood.)

On one of my expeditions into his yard, I was struck by the display of rings, and counted them as best I could. I came up with just shy of fifty, pointing back to around 1970, when I began my graduate work in philosophy at Vanderbilt. After passing my prelims in 1972, I found myself as a teaching assistant for John Lachs, working weekly with a breakout group with whom I’d heard Lachs’s lectures in Furman Hall’s big auditorium. I don’t remember a lot about those classes, but I recall we read Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil together. And I’ll not forget a student in the big class, one who wore only cutoff jeans as he walked around campus—no shoes, no shirt, just cutoffs. One day he stood up in class and declared that mankind had trespassed over 90% of the earth. (That seemed to pass for wisdom in the early 1970s.)

Once I had degree in hand, Lachs asked me to direct a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded program he’d gained for the university, and I was given assistant professor (part time) status to fill the role to NEH’s satisfaction. My main departmental teaching assignment was a class in the philosophy of man, and, in that capacity, I was able to pick up on a request from our local Campus Crusade chapter to host their visiting speaker, Josh McDowell. That day, he spoke of some work he done in Central America where he saw the failure of Marxist ideology. (As a follow up, I gave a colleague a chance to defend Marxism at a student-prof gathering in our apartment one evening. Of course, McDowell made far more sense.) Little did I know that nearly fifty years later, I would write the entry on Josh McDowell for Evangelical America, that I’d have his son Sean in a doctoral colloquium on Aristotle at SBTS, and that Sean would write a commendatory blurb for my book, If Christianity Is So Good, Why Are Christians So Bad?

And, so, I was planted in the classroom about the same time that hickory tree sprouted. (BTW, I live just off Old Hickory Blvd in Nashville.) And, just like the tree, I’ve added ring to ring in growth through the decades—I in classroom academics, the tree in temperate zone, hardwood, botanicals. Thanks to indulgent schools (high school, college/university, seminary), I’ve taught classes or lectured in Nashville, Lenoir City, and Jackson (TN); El Dorado and Bentonville (AR); Wheaton, Elmhurst, Evanston, Winnetka, Dolton, Chicago, and Deerfield (IL); Brea and Santa Barbara (CA); St. Paul (MN); Greenville and Tigerville (SC); Delafield (WI); New York (NY); Northborough (MA); Wake Forest (NC); Shawnee (OK); Cape Coral (FL); Louisville (KY); Fort Worth (TX); Washington (DC); Yangon, Myanmar; and Minado, Indonesia. And then there were church invitations (after I went back to SWBTS to get my MDiv) to draw on things I’d learned in my schooling, both secular and sacred.

I mentioned one of my students, Sean McDowell. Of course, there are thousands of others, with many of them still fresh in my memory. In many instances, I’ve had my students begin the term by writing biographical notes on a sheet, to which I appended a photo taken in class. Looking back through these, I see the most fascinating collection, including a Wheaton student who was once a kid on Sesame Street, an SBTS student who worked for a tire company in the garage area at NASCAR races, and another SBTS student who was once a hunk on Baywatch. And at the SBC in New Orleans in June, I got to renew my acquaintance with a student I swore into the military at MBTS in the 1990s. A bird colonel, he’s now the chief of chaplains for our forces in Europe.

Like that hickory tree in my neighbor’s yard, the forces of nature may bring me down one of these days before long. Would that I might have provided, when all is said and done, my own good share of greenery, shade, shelter, and warmth.