May 6, 2018

Chapel Talk - May 7 2018

The following is the transcript of my chapel talk. You may be able to view it here.

Luke 24: Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.

The reading for today tells of a journey, and two friends talking about everything that had happened. So, thats my plan for today. Although I started my journey at Luther in Fall of 1982 as a skinny freshman, I thought I would skip over 20 years and begin in the Fall of 2002. After a successful career in industry, I felt called to come to Luther and share my experience. I had come to campus and gone through the interview process, I’d given my interview talk to a packed house in Olin 112. All I really remember from that talk was that the room was hot and as I looked over my audience I saw my revered former professor Steve Hubbard nodding off in the back row.

Despite putting Steve to sleep I thought things went well, and now back in Plymouth MN Jane and I are waiting on pins and needles to hear something from Dean Craft. Coming to Luther to teach had been my dream since I was a junior here at Luther back in 1985. So you can imagine the anxiety level was pretty high. After a few extra days of waiting we threw modern theology to the wind and prayed for the lord to send us a sign! A burning bush, a cloud shaped like a Norse head, anything! The next day I received an email from a colleague at the University of Minnesota. Brad, just wanted to let you know that Gustavus is going to be starting a search for a tenure track position in computer science. Wrong sign! I shouted. A day later the phone rang and it was Bill Craft calling with the offer.

In my ideas and creations post a week ago I wrote about 3 teachers on my journey who inspired me, challenged me, and changed me. My high school teacher Mr. Weinman who knew nothing about computers but went way out of his way to encourage a couple of nerdy teens to teach themselves to program inspires me to bring teaching resources to other high school teachers. My Luther Professor, Walt Will, who inspired me to become a professor in the first place. My master’s advisor, John Carlis who challenged me to write a textbook when I told him I was going home to Luther College.

Of course, the journey to Emmaus is not just about a couple guys on a hike, the next line of the reading tells of a stranger that joined them on their road and started chatting with them. When I look back on my years here at Luther it will be the journeys and encounters with strangers that became new colleagues and friends that I remember most.

I have come to really love teaching students off campus. My first study away trip — a trip to Silicon Valley that I have done five times now — came about because an alumni wanted to teach a course on entrepreneurship. We hurriedly put the course together over November and December, and recruited 8 students… but over the Christmas break I added a last minute addition to the itinerary. Jane and I were sitting at the Chefs table on a cruise ship and I was chatting with the stranger next to me. I was telling him about the upcoming course which he thought sounded fantastic. Then he dropped a bombshell, he said he worked at Pixar! And, although visiting groups are not usually allowed he thought he could arrange something for us! He was true to his word, and that visit turned out to be one of the real highlights of the course that year.

Probably my favorite semester of all time at Luther will be the semester Jane and I spent with a dozen students in Malta. We had 10 young women in the group who we very quickly began to refer to as our daughters. We were very fortunate to get to travel with these students to Istanbul, Rome and Morocco. It was in Marrakech , as we were walking down the street with one of our daughters that we were approached by a stranger. I’ll give you two camels for your beautiful daughter he said with a smile and a wink. Wait here! I said, I have 9 more daughters back at the Riad. Some days I like to imagine the life I could have had as a camel rancher had I taken that stranger up on his offer. A small postscript to this story: After writing the rough draft of this talk I walked out to get the mail. Only to find a thank you note from this very daughter. It said “My husband and I are moving to Texas. and I wouldn’t be ready for this next adventure if it hadn’t been for the journey’s with you two.”

It was on that same trip to Morocco that we had an amazing day-long journey, from Fez through the middle Atlas Mountains - where we had a snowball fight and fed the monkeys - to the edge of the Sahara, where we boarded camels and road into the desert. Watching the sun set over the desert is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring sights any of us had ever seen. That night — with no WiFi or Cell service — our Berber hosts cooked us a Tagine of beef and we sat outside with them where they played drums and sang traditional Berber songs for us. We treated them to a rendition of “To Luther” and We will Rock You! That night changed us all.

Sometimes when you are on a journey, it is the unplanned things that can surprise you the most. During our stop at Ait Ben Haddou we made a dinner time decision to extend our stay so that we could visit the Ksar - The fortified city. At breakfast, Mohammed, the owner of the Hotel Bagdhad Cafe was happy to line up a guide, also named Mohammed, for us at the last minute, giving him an unconditional recommendation as the best guide in town.

At about the midway point of our climb through the Ksar our guide stopped outside his own house. “You are welcome here” he said. This is a phrase we had heard everywhere in Morocco from many different people. It had a much different feel than “welcome to my place.” it is at once more personal, more authentic, and unconditional. In a place where we wondered whether we really would be welcome we found it very comforting. Maybe thats a phrase we could think about adopting here at Luther.

Towards the end of the tour we came upon a mosque which is still in daily use. Right next to the mosque was a synagogue, no longer in use. The history of the Berber people is very old, and interesting. At one time the majority of the Berber’s were Jewish, then for a time they were Christian, but they have been Muslim for a long time. The result for the Berbers is that they are peaceful, and very tolerant. We want to get along with all people Mohammed told us. He went on, the problems in the world today are caused by three things: money, politics, and crazy people – Crazy Jews, Crazy Muslims, and Crazy Christians. Most people are good and peaceful people, its a shame the crazy people have to ruin it.

So, as I reach the end of my journey as a Luther faculty member I have much to be thankful for and I look forward to the future with excitement. A little over a week ago I was sitting on a plane, flying back from San Francisco. The stranger seated next to me on this journey struck up a conversation which surprisingly lasted the entire three hour flight back to Minneapolis. He had worked at Cargill for 17 years in their Malt division and had just recently made a long hoped for career change to become a financial planner. I told him about my career path and that I too was making a change and was on my way back after two days of meetings with my new team at Google. An offer had come to join this group for six months through a connection with a colleague I have only worked with online. We have written a paper together, we have written software together and done a joint podcast. I wrote him a letter of recommendation for his current job at UCSD. With this group I’ll get to do exactly what I was planning to do all along which is to work on Runestone Interactive — democratizing textbooks for the 21st century. Only now I’ll get a bit of help which may in turn help more “Mr. Weinman’s” out there.

Somewhere over southwest Minnesota this stranger said to me “Wow, You’ve had an amazing journey!” I guess you just have to keep your eyes open and be open to new opportunities when they come along.

So my advice to you students is to look for those strangers, take the time to chat with them and welcome them along on your journey. You never know where it might lead.