Around this time of year, there’s an old Shaker Hymn that is frequently heard called “Simple Gifts.” You probably know the tune and have heard the lyrics, but in case you haven’t here they are:
“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
It’s hard not to see why it’s heard at Thanksgiving and Christmas time so much. Aside from the pretty tune, it speaks to having a heart full of gratitude for the things we have in life. Yet because this song was written in the 19th century, like most songs and books written back then, its language often makes it hard to understand. Perhaps the lyrics to the song bear some examination.
“Tis a Gift to be simple” is pretty easy to figure out. I think with how hard wired and complicated our world becomes the more we long for some simplicity. Not just in terms of technology, but we seem to long for a time of simplicity when the lines of right and wrong were much more clearly defined. Likewise, “tis a gift to be free” is pretty much self explanatory. Freedom is something highly prized in American culture, and it is something coveted around the world.
But that last Tis…
Tis a gift to come down where you’re meant to be. Ah, there is the rub. What exactly does that mean? Perhaps the answer to that one lies in the words that follow, “And when we find ourselves in the place just right, we’ll be in the valley of love and delight.” So how do we find that gift? I can’t say for you , but I know in my own life it took a couple years to get to that valley.
I think back where I was on my life’s journey a little over a decade It was around this time of year when I went in for my scheduled meeting with m academic advisor at my university. At that time I was a Communication Arts 5-12 Education with Emphasis in Literature major, which big pans to be a high school teacher. And during the course of my meeting I learned that my application to the education department had been rejected.
At the time it was a crushing blow. Nothing can be harder for a young college student to have a full “four year plan” in place for their life, and then have the floor fall out from beneath them at year 3 and a half. While I was still able to graduate on time with a degree in Literature and Creative writing, it was still hard not to wonder if that time as an education major was worth it.
Yet at the same time, if I’m perfectly honest here were times I was frustrated with some of the work in the education department. I hated having to fill out the checklists to make sure the students learned what they needed for tests and I felt the day I spent proctoring for a standardized test was a huge waste of time that could be better spent elsewhere. In fact I have read some of the essay questions given to students nowadays and I just shake my head in disbelief. I see nothing that can inspire a love of reading or learning, and only emphasize getting the right answers on tests. I also read articles and posts from people who are in the profession and see their frustration with the system and even have grown to hate the subject they teach. I would hate to have spent a good part of my life teaching English only to grow to hate the very books I once loved to read that filled my mind with knowledge, fed my creativity, and kindled a burning imagination.
When I was let go from the department, my academic advisor said that I was clearly intelligent, creative, clever, passionate and witty and I was better suited for something which that could be better utilized. Fast forward a few years later and I’d find that chance.. My mentor and former professor Dr. Thomas Becknell was looking to do a unit on superheroes and in speaking with me he noticed how passionate an enthusiastic I was about the topic. He asked if I would be interested in coming in to talk on comic books for the class, and I eagerly accepted his offer.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve gone back to guest lecture on superheroes, and next week I’ll get to do one on Star Wars. As I’ve been preparing for these classes I find myself using a lot of the things I actually learned in education classes, such as compiling materials for handouts, and thinking up fun assignments for the class, like writing their own superhero fan fiction. More to the point, I had wanted to be able to use things like superheroes and Star Wars to show how myths and legends still apply to our lives today, and thus when I go back to Bethel to talk.
Where it will lead, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a panelist for a comic book convention. Maybe I’ll be interviewed for a documentary on one of these stories I love. Maybe I’ll take my thing on the road and guest lecture at other schools. I’m already saying to Dr. Becknell that he and I should take our talks to cyber space and start a YouTube Series where we talk about topics like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, and other modern myths.
Either way, I can’t help but feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to do. And how do I know that? Well, one of my favorite moments from any of my lectures came last year when we were talking the Avengers and a student asked me about the popularity of Loki. In the comic books he was never as popular, or attractive as he is in the films. But thanks to Tom Hiddelston’s charming and charismatic performance he gave the character new life. Then I told them, as Bethel is a private Christian University,
“I content that he ends up being a more biblically accurate depiction of the devil than Darth maul in Star Wars. Remember, the bible tells us the devil likes to appear as an angel of light. And, Loki is cunning, charming, attractive, seductive, just like the devil.”
I saw a light go on in their minds as they made a connection they never considered before, and it hit home to me that I am supposed to teach. Just not in the way I thought I was. In the past few years I can safely say that I’ve found myself in that place just right and that I’ve come down where I’m mean to be.