In a recognition of the importance of otherwise ordinary people, J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote, “Such is of the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” Of the stories of those with small hands, most go unrecorded, and the memories of their faithfulness remains only with those who knew them well.
Biographies are written about important people with extraordinary lives. The men and women who are movers and shakers in their time have their lives documented. Some people, like C. S. Lewis or Winston Churchill, inspire dozens of biographies because of their prominence and peculiarity. The preference for biographies of the famous makes sense, because most of us live pretty boring lives.
In academic circles, significant scholars have students and colleagues who write collections of essays in honor of them. These volumes tend to find their way into print for big names within the discipline, men and women who have significantly buttressed their field of study and helped a large number of graduate students successfully complete their studies. Most scholars never receive such accolades.
Beneath the thin crust of “big names” in any given discipline at a given time, hundreds of more obscure academics labor away in the trenches, never to be recognized publicly. The possible reasons for this are many, but may have as much to do with opportunity as skill.
Praise God for the faithful servants who diligently work for decades inspiring and educating students in the name of Christ, but never publish a book or headline a conference. Without those who labor in obscurity, often for pay that is less than they could earn elsewhere, Christian higher education would be impossible.
It can be easy to overlook the faithfulness of faculty whose legacies are recorded in the lives of their students rather than the catalogs of a library.
I recently had the opportunity to edit a collection of essays in honor of my former boss and mentor, Michael Travers. That volume has recently been published as The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis. Although I never took a class from Michael, I learned a great deal from him. He invested in me by offering me an open door and a comfortable chair to talk about administrative questions, theology or our shared interest in C. S. Lewis. He impacted the lives and careers of many students and colleagues before I ever knew him.
Michael died on March 2, 2017 after a lengthy battle with cancer. His impact was immediately apparent because hundreds of students and graduates from several institutions found out about his passing through the magic of social media algorithms and human networks. But those memorials are gone in a few days. Once the announcement of their passing becomes old news, the life and death of a faithful servant would have been a distant memory for all but a small circle of family and friends who knew them well. The memory might fade, but the impact endures.
I was determined to honor Michael somehow, so I got permission to put together a volume of essays in his honor. As I worked through the publication process, I was repeatedly struck by how many faithful men and women labor away presenting lectures, grading papers and mentoring students in the corners of the academic world. Many of these servants will never get their name on the cover of a book and may only be able to publish sporadically. Particularly for those academics working at small Christian schools, administrative burdens, the weight of teaching loads and the size of the library may make cutting edge scholarship difficult. Additionally, many talented scholars simply choose to invest their lives in their families, communities and local churches.
Just as we sometimes forget the faithfulness of local pastors in light of the men whose sermons we download and books we read, it can be easy to overlook the faithfulness of faculty whose legacies are recorded in the lives of their students rather than the catalogs of a library.
In my sanctified imagination, the procession of professors who worked for decades in Christian higher education are like Sarah Smith of Golders Green in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. While they were faithfully ministering the gospel alongside their history, biology or professional studies they were adopting students as their sons and daughters, while helping them love their natural parents better. They help their colleagues become themselves in light of God’s love, even as they shared a meal or discussed a policy in an academic committee. Their consistency is love for God demonstrated by caring for those he placed in their path. The true value of their work may not be measured by the metrics of this world.
The impact of such faithful service can be much greater than we immediately perceive. As the guide from The Great Divorce comments, “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end?”
We may not always be able to recognize the “small hands” that keep the wheels of the world moving in print or through applause in this life, but carrying their legacy into the world as part of the rippling wave of their faithfulness might be as good a way to say “thank you” as any. Of course, an unexpected note of encouragement would probably be a welcome surprise, too.