Following Christ in Cambridge and Cone-BottomsJanuary 23, 2024 - Justin Hardin
It was my first time to attend a Cambridge formal hall, a posh ceremonial dinner for which the world’s oldest universities are renowned. As a fifth-generation Texan and a faithful Baptist since birth, I knew everything about BBQs and potluck fellowships. But I knew next to nothing about formal halls, except that they required black tie and sub fusc (the flowing academic gowns we see on Harry Potter).
Cambridge college formal halls are steeped in tradition and etiquette. Back home, we had our own version of these. It was ancient practice in my church, for example, for Mrs. Betty to bring her famous homemade peach ice cream to every church fellowship. And it was considered ill-mannered to help yourself to a bowl of it before Bro. Bill blessed the food. Everyone knew that.
But my wife, Jill, and I weren’t in the familiar environs of our church’s fellowship hall. We were at a formal hall in a university approaching its 800th birthday. An ocean of time and traditions stood between us, an unwritten code that had been passed down for generations in a distant land. As we sat down to elaborately embossed silverware meticulously arranged around crested fine china, we felt very far from home.
Fortunately, a mentor had already taught us the basic conversational protocols. Before the main course, talk with the person sitting beside you on one side. During the main course, turn and talk with the person sitting beside you on the other side. After the main course, look across the table and talk with the person opposite you.
With this knowledge, we tried our best to blend in, but I hadn’t considered my Texan accent. It was as thick as a Dairy Queen Blizzard. In my house, words like yellow came out yalla. And we elongated anything with the letter “I” so that words like ice and hi grew an extra syllable.
The Cambridge don seated to my left was on to my origin story from the start of our soup course, when he had asked what subject I was studying. I replied with an evangelistic, “I’m studying the New Testament and early Christianity.”
My first word sparked his eureka moment, “Ah, do I detect an American accent?”
I didn’t know it at the time, but his question was a textbook example of British understatement. What he really meant was: Clearly, you must be a real-life American hillbilly! Despite the awkward beginning, we muddled through and had a pleasant evening.
Our family lived and worked in England for a decade. During that time, we found a wonderful church family. Our kids attended the local primary school. And we developed deep friendships with neighbors. Eventually, this island didn’t feel like a strange, faraway place. It was home, even if we never dropped our native tongue.
In the ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we are told, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” At this decisive moment, Jesus says something about home in response to a man who vowed to follow Jesus wherever he went. His response to the man was chilling: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He then turns to a different man and says bluntly, “Follow me.” Having no earthly place to call home, Jesus yet calls others to follow him as lifelong disciples.
Jill and I have been following Jesus together for a quarter of a century, during which time we’ve made new homes in four states and two countries. Last July, we arrived at Ouachita for the second time. The first was my freshman year almost three decades ago.
I suppose that for many of us reading this magazine, coming to Ouachita as students was our very first time to leave home. But for me, it felt like a home away from home. It was a nurturing greenhouse where I learned to know and be known, to love and be loved, and to grow and thrive as a follower of Jesus.
In the second poem of his magisterial “Four Quartets,” T. S. Eliot mused, “Home is where one starts from.” If this is true, then one might reasonably say that Ouachita is home. For in a profound sense, it is the place where I started from.
Returning to Ouachita to serve faculty colleagues and students, I pray that we will faithfully preserve and strengthen our transformative, Christian liberal-arts tradition for a new generation of Ouachitonians. That our Christ-centered learning community will cultivate Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. That this place will always be a place where one starts from – that it would be home.
Dr. Justin Hardin has served at Ouachita since 2022 as vice president for academic affairs, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies and professor of biblical studies. He earned his B.A. in history and biblical studies from Ouachita, a Master of Divinity degree from Samford University and two degrees from the University of Cambridge: a Master of Philosophy degree in theology and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in New Testament.
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