I was 26 years old when I started graduate school in Dallas, Texas.
In the first semester of my first year, I took a course in theology taught by a 41-year-old Dr. Phil Hook.
What I didn’t know entering class that day was that my biggest takeaway would not be the depth and breadth of knowledge acquired, but the awareness of a different way to be in the world. A different way to be with others in the world.
Sometimes while taking notes, I would pause, put down my pen, and just listen. Listen to his words, listen to the cadence of his voice. It was all so rich and fresh. I don’t remember his using notes. He would stand to the side of his lectern and talk to us.
One day a student raised his hand and asked, “Dr. Hook, is this material going to be on the next exam?”
Dr. Hook paused and said: “Well, let me think about that. I suppose so. I’m guessing, since you asked, that you’d like an A.” The student nodded “Yes, of course.”
So, he picked up his notebook, his grade book, and put an A next to the student’s name. I did not see that coming!
I was disarmed. And, that day something shifted inside of me. I was made aware of something. And it was very subtle, it was like a curtain was opened. My world got bigger and I began to see for myself the power of acceptance, the way unconditional acceptance can turn a person’s life inside out.
I knew then and know today that most of my waking hours are still pre-occupied with grades—grading myself, measuring myself, comparing myself to others, wondering and worrying, even as I did in that theology class—“How am I doing? Will I fit in? Do I measure up. Can I cut it here? Do I even deserve to be here?”
Let me also say, that I did not feel humiliated or embarrassed or shamed by what was happening. Dr. Hook wasn’t mocking us for our obsession with grades.
It seemed to me, that Dr. Hook wanted us to feel safe in his classroom.
When he wrote the A in his notebook, I felt he was saying,
“Let’s take grades off the table, and get on with the reason we’re here. I’m not here to grade you. I’m here to mentor you. So let’s stay open, let’s stay receptive and teachable and hungry.”
There’s something else. In that moment, he was exposing his own vulnerability, and, quite frankly, his love for us, his own tenderheartedness toward us. He knew that when we know we’re truly accepted, real learning can begin. He knew that, and 50 years later, I know it too.
He knew us well, that we were a bunch of young men in their 20s and 30s who were uptight, anxious, distracted, not even aware that we were playing a game of one-up-man-ship. It’s what we do in the early going, trying to create a life, an image, posing and posturing for others, hoping to leave a strong impression.
He also understood that we were at the beginning of a very long journey, that we were growing, we were ripening. He knew that we were growing up, and that in itself is a life-long process, and that we were on the verge of discovering a whole new world, that our entire lives were ahead of us. He knew that, too. That’s what we call wisdom, that’s what we call perspective. That’s what we call real humility.
Dr. Hook died in 2011, just short of his 80th birthday. At his memorial service, a former student shared a quote from Dr. Hook in which he says, “I’ve come to realize how the atmosphere you set creates the result God uses.”
And that’s what I remember: the atmosphere, the safety, the compassion, the acceptance. A graced awareness fell upon me that day. Somehow I knew that nothing is missing in my life, that all I need is right here, and there’s nothing for me to earn, to prove, or to defend.
I have come to believe that it’s just like that all the time. Every moment of every day. Heart beat by heart beat. It’s just like that. But we forget. We don’t lose that acceptance, but our awareness of that acceptance is fragile. We get distracted. And, we forget. Fortunately, another moment comes along, usually unexpected, usually it’s very subtle, and we’re awakened again to a love and acceptance that has no limits.