It Feels Good When You Sing a Song: My [Non-Partisan] Playlist for Election-Induced Anxiety

I know I’m far from the only person who is struggling with anxiety in the run up to this year’s presidential election. I’m prone to anxiety anyway, so between politics and a few busy weeks at work and home, life has felt a bit like a big vat of stress to drown in lately. This weekend I’ve been trying to stay off of social media (mostly) and focus on reading, writing, and hanging with my kids instead, and I’m hoping to continue that trend into next week to help keep the anxiety in check and the heartburn at bay.

A few weeks ago, my boys went on a random kick of watching Sesame Street videos that had been sitting around our house neglected for quite some time, and since then, I have found myself humming one of the songs–a number by John Legend and Hoots the owl–repeatedly. Here are a few of the lyrics:

“Sing a sing about new friends.

Sing about tomorrow and yesterday.

Sing a song about old friends.

Why not sing about having a sax to play?

It can’t be bad even if it’s sad.

Sing it loud, sing it strong.

It feels good when you sing a song.”

Sesame Street is a great place to learn things, or perhaps just be reminded of them. So as another strategy to stave off the election blues and nerves, I set out on a trip through Youtube to collect a few of my favorite calming, cathartic, and feel-good tunes. Some of these are hymns, but they all speak to my spirit when I’m stressed out. If you are struggling with anxiety these days, perhaps one of them will refresh your soul as well.


 

“Creation will be at Peace” – A lovely anthem of peace performed by the fantastic choir from Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (Huntsville, AL):


“Be Still My Soul” – Another lovely, peaceful, and encouraging anthem from the incomparable Mormon Tabernacle Choir:


“It’s So Heavy” A sad, cathartic tune to remind us to let go a little when things seem to be too much, from the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Like Hoots sings, “It can’t be bad, even if it’s sad.”


“Stormy Monday” – A truly excellent rendition from the Allman Brothers that I love to play when I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. Lord have mercy…


“People Get Ready” – Now, for the feel-good tunes! You can’t beat Susan Tedeschi having some church with the Blind Boys of Alabama here:


“Let Love Take Control” – A reminder from my favorite swampy bluesman that it’s all about love, not anxiety and fear:


“It Feels Good When You Sing a Song” – And of course, John Legend and Hoots reminding us of the power of music to alter our mood:


Feel free to add to my list by linking to your own favorites in the comments.  I don’t know about you, but I can always use another anxiety-busting tune! 

Lift Up Your Heads!

An Advent Reflection from Philippians 4 and Isaiah 12

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

– Philippians 4:4-7  (NIV)

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.

– Isaiah 12:5-6 (NIV)

fall trees

Photo credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

When it comes to academics (but not housekeeping, alas) I’m quite a perfectionist. I’m the teacher now, but I still stress about deadlines and the quality of my work even when no one is waiting with a red pen to give me a grade. Not surprisingly, back when I was a graduate student at Auburn, I dealt with a lot of stress and anxiety, especially while preparing for my comprehensive exams.

I have a crystal-clear memory of the autumn afternoon in 2002 when I walked out of Haley Center after finishing my last exam. I looked up and was astonished to notice that the trees lining the parking lot had turned a brilliant shade of red. They stood out beautifully against a crisp, sunlit blue sky, and I had to pause and take it all in. For weeks, I had been so busy and so anxious that I had missed much of what was going on around me. I’d had my nose pressed so tightly to the grindstone that I had forgotten to look up.

In our “hustle, bustle, and buy” Christmas season, it is easy to become over-scheduled and stressed out in what should be a season of joy, peace, and beauty. This year, let’s try to slow down and not worry so much about getting everything done and making everything perfect. All that we need is already here.

Scratch the to-do list. Enjoy your friends. Love your family.

Experience Immanuel, God with us.

The Lord is near. The Holy One of Israel is among us.

Lift up your heads!

fall colors 2

Photo Credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

Learning to Sit in a Broken Chair

 

Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor 

If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).

kevin-sorbo-300x189

Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).

Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.

The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]

But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”

When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.

Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.

I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”

Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].

Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little. 

The thing is-that’s okay. Why?

Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.

Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)

Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.

I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.

And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??

If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.

This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.

And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”

broken chairFaith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.

Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.

And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.

Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.

We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.

I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.

These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?

11134159_10204923223572944_5701581359437946027_n

I’m really not that scary.

But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs. 


 

 

Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome

 

The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . all over the Interwebs!

After spending a couple of years reading quite a bit of theology, but not that much of the Bible itself, I was in the mood this year to get back to the core of things. So, in spring 2015, my book group at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church explored some of the parables of Jesus using Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.

I enjoyed reading and discussing the parables immensely (of course, it helps that I have a fabulous group of folks to do it with!), and I liked the interpretations that Levine had to offer although getting to her main points took some slogging through lots of background and citation of obscure sources. If you are academically inclined or especially interested in learning about 1st-century Judaism, I recommend her book. I also enjoyed reading up on the parables in Robert Farrar Capon’s three-volume set Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

However, if you aren’t up for heavy reading but would like a refresher course on (or an introduction to) some of the parables, here is a list of additional sources that I assembled as we worked our way through the parables in Levine’s book, plus a couple more.

There are some standard interpretations included here, and some creative ones. If you are in the mood to be puzzled and provoked by Jesus’s stories, dive right in!

Parable Readings from around the Web:

Charles Spurgeon’s 1884 sermon on the parable of the Lost Sheep (long, but I found it interesting that his take aligns in some ways more with Levine’s than with Luke’s framing of the story as about repentance. The emphasis is more on Jesus searching for lost souls than on repentance).

James Buckley, “Seeking, Saving, Finding”: A blog post on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, using the parable of the Lost Coin. 

The Good Samaritan: A blog post with two contrasting readings of the parable–one Christocentric (The Good Samaritan = Jesus himself) and the other more along the lines of Levine’s interpretation.

“Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Be a Good Samaritan” by David Henson. This is a GREAT reflection on a possible deeper meaning of this parable – the logical next step from Levine’s analysis, I think. More from Henson below.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” (Parable of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, etc.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces.”

Alyce M. McKenzie, “Strange Scripture: Reflections on the Five Parables in Matthew 13” (Contains the Parables of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, and Pearl of Great Price)


Parable readings by Episcopal priest David R. Henson (Fair warning: David does creative readings of the sort AJ Levine dislikes. I find them intriguing, but they should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt!):

The Lost Sheep

The Prodigal Son

The Good Samaritan (This is a link to the first of three retellings of the parable; you can get to the other two by clicking the links at the top of the blog posts.)

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Parable of the Talents

The Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Sower (I really like this one!)


“The God who Throws Seeds Everywhere” – Morgan Guyton on the Parable of the Sower

Moonshine Jesus Show Lectionary Cast on the Parable of the Sower (20 minutes of audio)


Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16)

Carl Gregg (Unitarian Universalist) – Jesus’ Parable of the Job Creator, the Day Laborers, and #OccupyWallSt Gregg hits upon a few of the same points as Levine.

Jack Mahoney, SJ (Jesuit) – “The Parable of the Living Wage?” – This one is a little dense, but it has some good points. It touches on some other parables that we have read as well.

Sr. Rose Pacatte (Catholic) – “What the Parable of the Vineyard Workers Really Says” – Another  social justice-oriented interpretation.

Allen Ross (prof. at Samford’s divinity school), “The Workers in the Vineyard” – A fairly standard, more spiritualized interpretation about grace.


David Henson, Radical Reversals: Lazarus, Abraham, and the Myth of the Righteous Rich (A Homily)

All Souls’ Day: Everybody Counts, or Nobody Counts

In his post today, blogger David Henson challenges us to think about All Souls’ Day in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We know that “All Souls Matter,” he writes, but maybe the events of this year should require us to say aloud, “Black Souls Matter.”

We have probably all seen the responses to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that clamor back, “All Lives Matter” or “Police Lives Matter,” from people who think that somehow this movement seeks to make certain lives worth more than others, rather than to highlight the existence of fatal inequalities in our society and justice system.

There is a misconception that stating the value of one group of people automatically devalues other groups, when actually, it is the reverse that is true. It is devaluing one group of people that automatically devalues all of us.

This reminds me of one of my favorite popular authors, Michael Connelly, and Harry Bosch, the central character of his extensive detective series. In a few of the novels, Harry finds himself investigating crimes that others feel are low priority. Who cares who killed a prostitute? Why bother to solve the case? No one cares.

But Harry’s response is this memorable phrase:

“Everybody counts, or nobody counts.”

We are all human, and we all bear the image of God, even if sometimes our human frailty and brokenness may obscure it. Sometimes our brokenness, or our sin, if you like, is our inability to see the image of God in others; to value all life and to seek equality, justice, redemption, and reconciliation for all. When we devalue others, either on purpose or by turning a blind eye to their suffering, we tarnish our own divine image. In making others out to be lesser creatures, we become lesser creatures ourselves. 

If I want my life to matter, I must do my part to ensure that all lives, all souls, are understood to matter just as much.

This isn’t easy because we all like to feel superior to someone or to some other group of people. It’s an easy, cheap way to feel better about ourselves. I think that all of us do this in some way whether we are conscious of it or not: I’m better than that poor person, that badly dressed person, that socially awkward person, that black person, that redneck person, that non-English-speaking person, that genderqueer person, that gay person, that addicted person, that liberal person, that conservative person, that fundamentalist person, that Muslim person . . . the list can go on and on.

Some of these judgments are simply unkind. Others can be fatal.

So, on this All Soul’s Day I challenge us to be honest and to think about the souls that society and we as individuals have devalued and marginalized, and to speak their value out loud.

In doing so, we are not giving special value to these groups because the truth is that they already matter. Rather, we are recognizing their value and affirming that we should live in a society where All Lives and All Souls matter.

Everybody counts, or nobody counts. 

Let’s work toward a world where everyone does. 

Here’s my litany of souls that already matter, but that need to be spoken aloud. Who would you add to the list?

Black Souls Matter

Undocumented Immigrant Souls Matter

Refugee Souls Matter

Non-Christian Souls Matter

Non-Hetero Souls Matter

Trans Souls Matter

Mentally Ill Souls Matter

Disabled Souls Matter

HIV+ Souls Matter

Working Poor Souls Matter

Homeless Souls Matter

Trafficked Souls Matter

Sex Worker Souls Matter

Addicted Souls Matter

Convict Souls Matter

Souls on Death Row Matter

Only when we have said, believed, and most importantly acted as though all of these souls matter, can we simply be content to say

All Souls Matter.

candles