Last Wednesday pastor Tim Keller spoke in chapel at Wheaton about the formation of identity, and the way self esteem is created. He reminded us of a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien: "The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.”
On Friday, those words took on new meaning for me when I heard that Dr. Roger Lundin had passed into the presence of God, and left so many heartbroken by his leaving.
Like so many other former students of Dr. Lundin's, I was swept up in the energy and passion he brought to the study of literature. I was a sponge during his classes, soaking up every word of beauty, pathos, pain, and wisdom. His insights and ideas washed over me, making sense of things that were previously obscured to my young mind. His sense of humor and almost childlike delight at the good (and oftentimes silly) things of life were infectious. The honest, vulnerable way he described his own journey through loss, grief, and loneliness into the the hope of faith was refreshing. At times the thoughts and experiences he shared were so personal, it felt like he was entrusting us with a precious gift. At times the truths he helped us uncover together through great works of literature were so achingly beautiful, I felt like my heart and mind were going to explode with the weight of it all. It truly was the weight of glory.
I remember he would walk restlessly around the room while lecturing, always moving, pacing up and down the aisles. Sometimes he would take an empty seat next to a student for a moment, or crouch down and look directly in a student's eyes, drawing in a long, deep breath while a thought was brewing. Then he'd leap up and run to the front of the room as a beloved truth began issuing from somewhere deep inside, sometimes playfully patting students' heads on the way. Once I remember he stood on a large table in a classroom in Jenks hall, and at the crescendo of the lecture he took a flying leap out onto the floor in front of us. The building shook, and for a moment I thought the whole thing was going to crash down around us. O captain, my captain! He was a giant.
But it wasn't just Roger's teaching style or his passion for literature that connected to me so deeply. I have known many wonderful, passionate teachers. But few are as dedicated to knowing -- really knowing -- their students as Roger was. He noticed his students. He noticed me. In 1994, a few weeks into his literature of the western world course, he stopped me after class to say, "Rebecca, your writing is strong, and you're doing well in this class. Have you ever considered majoring in English?" There were other encouragements. Notes on papers and tests. Affirming conversations when I gathered the courage to speak up in class. And after I'd decided to become an English major, an invitation to leave the curmudgeonly advisor to whom I'd been assigned and work with Dr. Lundin as my advisor instead.
Dr. Lundin gave me (and I suspect a great many other students) a great gift: he gave me the praise of the praiseworthy. And it transformed me. Because of his confidence in me, I began to have new confidence in myself. And I worked hard because I wanted to live up to what he saw in me.
The lecture from Dr. Lundin I remember most vividly was about the "fortunate fall." He explained that much of American literature is about the mistaken belief that we can, and should, find our way back to innocence. But the message of Christianity is that redemption after the fall is better than innocence. Death is the ugliest consequence of the fall. I long for the time before death. But there is no going back. Christ, through his work on the cross, has redeemed even death. There is only going forward into redemption -- and a better new life.
I know that Roger Lundin is among those now who have already tasted the fulfillment of God's redemption promises. And I know that he is receiving the praise of the One who is most praiseworthy. We who knew and loved him do well to offer our tributes to Roger, but hearing those words, "well done good, and faithful servant," from His King is already his greatest reward.